Natural and organic are some of the labels used in the food industry. Other food industry labels— natural, all-natural, free-range, or hormone-free. These are different and should not be confused with organic. The use of natural, free-range, hormone-free is simply a statement describing the property of the food item. The natural label will mean minimally processed and could include the non-use of artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients.
In the case of meat, animals may continue to be given growth-enhancing chemicals or hormones, and the labels could describe the meat as naturally raised, free-ranging, grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone-free, and the likes: all describing one property or the other of the dairy, meat, or other food product. It is important to distinguish between such labels and the ones certified as organic.
Organic food production prohibits sewage sludge, genetically engineered or modified organisms, ionizing radiation, most synthetic pesticides, and fertilizers. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and dairy products must be free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Animals must be fed on organic feed only. Organic regulation prescribes specific requirements for feeding, housing, and breeding. Animals need to be raised in natural, humane conditions.
The focus is on the sustainable use of resources and the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. Organic agriculture and farming practices require integrated pest management practices, protection, and promotion of biodiversity, as well as maintaining native ecosystems. Organic crops must be free from any contamination from genetically modified organism crops. Food products will be labeled natural and organic depending on the production process’s nature.
Fruits and vegetables cultivated by small farmers, especially in developing countries, may not be certified organic even though the farm practices conform to organic cultivation standards. Many farmers do not have the financial wherewithal to buy and use artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or even sludge. Without certification, produce from such farms will be classified as natural. Regulators often authorize certification agencies to permit producers to mark products as natural and organic.
The National Organic Program (NOP) is responsible for organic certification in the US. The US Department of Agriculture runs this program, drawing its authority from a 1990 Organic Foods Production Act.
Under the NOP, products with entirely organic ingredients and methods are labeled as “100% organic.” Products with at least 95% organic ingredients can be labeled “organic.” There is a third category, having a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, marked as “made with organic ingredients.” These products are permitted to display the logo of the approved certification body.
The state, not-for-profit handle certification in the US and private agencies are approved by the US Department of Agriculture. Some retailers have had their stores certified as organic handlers and processors. This gives them added authenticity critical to provide comfort to buyers.
The package in which food is packed is often discarded after use. Certification also covers packaging; this needs to be done in an environmentally friendly manner. It means restricting the package size to optimal levels and using biodegradable materials for packaging. In many parts of the world, polythene packaging is banned for retail use. The focus is on biodegradable paper-based packaging materials.
Private certification agencies from Europe and other parts of the world have opened their offices in India. While the price of certification is a function of demand and supply, many countries, including the US and India, subsidize part of the certification charges.
Certification costs include inspection, product segregation, and other charges. Retailers, too, are required to maintain purchase records, segregate organic products from conventional products, and make all documentation available to regulators.
A common EU-wide label for organic food is mandated in the European Union countries. The logo is a green rectangle that shows 12 stars from the European flag placed in the shape of a leaf in the wind. Individual European countries have authorized multiple institutions to certify food and farms as organic.
The common EU-wide certification label only came into existence in 2010. In Germany, the organic movement is very strong and supported by political parties like the Green party. In 2000, they initiated a campaign for organic foods after an outbreak of the mad cow disease. Multiple non-government organizations in Germany and other European countries have promoted several labels for organic food.
Demeter International is an iconic name in the not-for-profit organic food labeling certifying organizations. Its labels represent the world’s highest standards for organic food and have been in use since 1928. Demeter and a few others often have standards higher than those prescribed to secure the common EU certification label. Demeter is, therefore, present in many countries across the world.
Foods certified by Demeter are observed to command prices that are 10 to 30% above the average. Labels are valid for a year and follow a rigorous certification process: from agricultural production to processing and final product packaging. This process verifies excluding synthetic fertilizers, chemical plant protection agents in crop production, and artificial additives during food processing. It further seeks to strengthen a production cycle to improve soil and foodstuffs.
The concept promotes nature playing a role in food production. This means permitting the growth of natural flora and fauna specific to an ecosystem. Farm animals should be kept in a healthy natural environment. Shelter breaks and crop rotation are encouraged to improve and maintain soil fertility. Homogenizing milk, artificial additives, and nitrite salts in meat processing are prohibited. Organic herbs and spices are allowed in processed food.
In Australia, India, and other countries, several organic certification and organic product export organizations have been notified by respective governments. The standards followed by most of these national and state-level organizations are found to be robust and acceptable to organic food importing countries of Europe and North America.
China is a large importer of food, including organic products; it does not recognize international standards. It requires non-Chinese food producers to obtain certification under Chinese standards and regulations. This certification is not just cumbersome but also expensive.
Many foods exporting organizations from Australia and New Zealand find it cost-effective to spend substantial sums to obtain these certificates. Once certified, they can leverage higher-than-market food prices from the cash-rich segments of Chinese society. The recent public scandals on food safety have helped build a national scare in the country. This has triggered large-scale food imports. Many companies exporting to China have leveraged this to their advantage and exported substantial quantities to that country.
In addition to organic labels, other labels like non—GMO label is permitted to be used on food and food products. Products are labeled as “non—GMO” or “GMO-free” to inform that no more than 0.9% of the product is genetically engineered. Such labels are given after independent third-party verification.
Natural and organic are labels meant to inform the consumer about the nature of the product.
Additional reading on Organic food:
Nutrition Facts- a guide to good health