Organics 101: Questions About Organic and Conventional Foods Answered

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Curious about what the term “organic” really means? You’re not alone. As organic foods become increasingly prevalent on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, many want to learn more about how farmers grow these products, but sometimes it’s hard to sift through the myths and misinformation and uncover the truth.

Fortunately for you, we’ve done the hard work, answering five common questions about organic foods and growing practices as well as organic certification processes. Read on for our answers and prepare to expand your knowledge base. Chances are, you’re going to learn something new.

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What standards must farmers follow in order for their products to be certified organic?

Farmers can go through a variety of certification processes in order to label their products as organic.

USDA Organic: Those who want the USDA Organic seal on their items in grocery stores must follow USDA’s National Organic Program, which means they produce their food products without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge, and they are produced using only approved substances from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. A certifying agent inspects every farm or business that applies for organic certification through the USDA, and if they comply with the rules (including using no prohibited fertilizers or pesticides on the land for three years), the certifying agent issues an organic certificate that lists products that can be sold as organic from that farm or business.

Certified Naturally Grown: This falls into the category of third-party organic certifications, which the federal government does not regulate. Instead, participating farmers oversee them. This peer-to-peer certification process enables farmers to use the Certified Naturally Grown label on their products in grocery stores, and just like products labeled as USDA Organic, these do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and can contain certain pesticides.

QAI Transitional: Farmers in the three-year process of transitioning their operation to organic status can join Quality Assurance International’s (QAI) Certified Transitional Program. Products made using at least 51 percent certified transitional content may use the QAI Transitional label on their packaging. The Kashi brand recently announced a partnership with QAI and introduced a certified transitional cereal, Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits. Products such as this one may include a smaller percentage of synthetic pesticide-free ingredients than a product with the USDA organic seal.

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