Mother Earth Living

A Guide to Buying Organic Food: Reading Food Labels

Why buy organic? The short answer is that organic foods may be a better choice for your health and the environment because they’re not subjected to pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, nor are they made from genetically modified plant or animal species. The issue gets a bit more complicated, however, as you wander through the supermarket aisles and start reading food labels. Let’s take a look.

Vegetables and Fruit

Buying organic vegetables and fruits is the single easiest way to reduce your exposure to pesticides, antibiotic residues and genetically modified food. An Environmental Working Group study found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical-cord blood of newborns, some of which are pesticides that may have entered the bloodstream through the mother’s diet. Adult levels exceeded 275 contaminants. The good news is that when children eat organic produce, their pesticide exposure levels drop to well below what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers a negligible health hazard, according to University of Washington researchers.

Fortunately, the United States has a national organic standards program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). When you buy USDA-certified organic food, you know it’s produced without using most petroleum-derived pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Organic regulations also prohibit bioengineered species and irradiation. Before a product is labeled “USDA-certified organic,” a third-party, government-approved certifier inspects the farm for compliance. Companies that handle or process organic food for the supermarket are also certified.

Look for the USDA green-and-white “certified organic” symbol on organic fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Also note the fresh-produce stickers: Organic produce always starts with a number 9, followed by the price code. Labels on genetically modified produce, which is not organic, begin with a number 8, followed by the price code.

Poultry and Eggs

The poultry and egg industries have dozens of terms that make their brands appear similar to organic even when they’re not. Words that may appear on labels include “free roaming,” “free range,” “cage free,” “no antibiotics,” “no pesticides,” “vegetarian fed” and “hormone free.” (Hormones are never allowed in the poultry, egg and pork industries–organic or not.)

To be certified organic, poultry or eggs must meet all the above criteria–and be raised using certified organic farming methods. One of the most significant differences between pseudo-organic brands and certified organic is the use of antibiotics on the bird, which may contribute to human antibiotic resistance.


Organic meats are from free-ranging animals that have been raised eating organically grown grass or feed and that have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones that speed up the animal’s growth. Organic livestock rules also prohibit the use of animal byproducts in feed, which has been a primary contributor to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

The word “natural” on a meat label might mean that hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or other synthetic ingredients never were administered. The USDA definition of “natural” is somewhat diluted; it simply means the finished product has been minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients. The primary difference between “natural” meat (not a USDA classification) and certified organic meat is the feed. Though naturally raised livestock are customarily fed a vegetarian diet, the feed may have been grown with pesticides.


Numerous reports have raised questions regarding fish safety. Elevated levels of such contaminants as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found in farmed salmon, and mercury is high in large ocean fish. The USDA has not yet approved organic seafood certification standards, so there’s nothing to prevent a company from selling its product as organic–as long as the official USDA organic seal is not used. (A proposal for organic seafood certification is currently under review.)

Some states, such as Florida, have their own USDA organic seafood certification process, but there’s been resistance to this practice. California recently banned the sale of any organically labeled seafood until state or federal standards are established. For now, remember that U.S. shrimp, wild salmon, crab, tilapia and farmed catfish contain the lowest mercury levels. Also, better aquaculture practices are emerging, such as feeding shrimp and tilapia a vegetarian diet and maintaining clean habitats for farm-raised mollusks.


As many as 30 percent of conventional dairy farmers use hormones (rBGH) to stimulate milk production, according to Monsanto, an rBGH manufacturer. This places extraordinary stress on the cows, causing infections that require more antibiotics. Organic dairy rules prohibit these practices and require that cows receive vegetarian, organic feed and pasture-grazing time. As organic dairy farms try to keep up with high demand, many are under attack for cutting corners on pasturing time. Discussions are under way to address the issue.

Organic Packaged Foods

Packaged foods may be categorized into three organic classifications: 100 percent organic; 95 percent organic with the remaining 5 percent from approved foods and substances; or 70 percent organic with the remaining ingredients also from an approved list. Only the first two classes may use the USDA’s green and white organic-certification symbol. Packaged foods in the 70 percent-organic category may carry a “made with organic ingredients” label along with a list of those that are organically grown.

  • Published on Jul 1, 2006
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