How do I know if what I am buying is genuinely organic?

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

How do I know if what I am buying is genuinely organic?

—Michael Faber, Acton, MA

“With produce and other food items, the required U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification and labeling process is stringent enough, but the USDA doesn’t regulate household cleaners, body care products, and other household items, and that’s where fraudulent labeling occurs,” according to Craig Minowa, environmental scientist at the Organic Consumer Association. He says that consumers need to be careful when shopping for organic goods because companies currently add minimal or questionable organic ingredients to traditional toxics so they can market the product as “all natural” or “100% organic.” One such trick involves the use of hydrosols, which are a byproduct of distilling organic plant matter and making essential oils. Companies are capturing the steam created in this process and using it in place of regular water as the base of products, allowing them to claim that a large percentage of the product is organic. “The use of hydrosols a big loophole in organic standards right now,” says Minowa. “They’re used to inflate organic labeling percentages.”

Product labeling has also made headlines lately because of the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A bill to require labeling of such food, sponsored by Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich is feared to not make it passed Congress. However, GMO labeling in other countries is taking off. Regarding food labeling in this country, in addition to USDA certification, there a voluntary labeling program created by the National Organic Standard Board. Their standards prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms, irradiation, sewage sludge, or antibiotics in organic meat and poultry production, and require 100-percent organic feed for organic livestock. There are three different labels, based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product: “100 Percent Organic”; “Organic” (contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients by weight, excluding water and salt); “Made with Organic” (contains between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients). To help consumers, the USDA has designed a seal that can be used on products labeled as “100 Percent Organic” or “Organic.”

Organic labels are popping up everywhere for other types of products, but buyer beware: just because your T-shirt is made of certified organic cotton, doesn’t mean that it was treated with chemical-free, organic dyes. Sandra Marquardt, project coordinator for the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) Organic Fiber Council, says that while certification for organic cotton already exists, the OTA is in the final stages of developing organic fiber processing standards that would address the treatment and dyeing of organic cotton.

CONTACT: Organic Consumers Association, 6101 Cliff Estate Road, Little Marais, MN 55614, (218) 226-4164,; Organic Trade Association, P.O. Box 547, Greenfield, MA 01301, (413) 774-7511,,