What Does "Organic" Really Mean?

When you're trolling the aisles at the grocery store and you slip from the cereal aisle to the shampoo section, do the definitions change? If it says "organic" on both a bottle of sunscreen and a box of crackers, what does that even mean? We’ve asked Joe Dickson, who works with the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and at Whole Foods Market, which recently announced strict new organic guidelines for its body care section, to set the record straight.

GOOD: What does organic really mean?

Joe Dickson: In a general sense, organic foods are grown in earth-friendly ways without the use of toxic or persistant agricultural chemicals. Thanks to the clear federal definition of "organic," organic food is made of at least 95 percent organic agricultural materials grown using earth-friendly practices without toxic or persistent pesticides. The remaining 5 percent can only contain carefully vetted substances from a short list of approved additives.

G: But what does that mean for personal care products?

JD: The definitions are not so clear. The USDA doesn’t have the same control over personal care products as it does over food. While many personal care products are certified under the USDA standards and many display the USDA Organic Seal, the USDA doesn’t have the authority to police organic claims on personal care products that don’t use the seal. There’s quite a bit of legal debate about whether the jurisdiction of the USDA extends to this type of product. In short, any food with “organic” on the label is subject to strict standards and enforcement by the federal government, but personal care products are not.

G: Why did Whole Foods decide to come up with their own organic labeling guidelines for personal care?

JD: It was an effort to make it so that our customers don’t have to switch standards and expectations when they cross from grocery into the body care aisle. Now, the word “organic” in our body care departments will signify that same set of ideals. We asked “What would our average shopper expect ‘organic’ to mean?” In this case, it was very clear to us that you wouldn’t expect the definition of “organic” in body care to be very different from the definition used for food.

G: Do you see this leading to a broader change in the cosmetics industry?

JD: If retailers demand accurate labeling, many companies will rise to the challenge and make changes to meet these demands in order to keep their products on the shelf. Ideally, eventually the USDA will regulate organic personal care products just as it does food. We know that the USDA and the FDA are currently working together on the issue.

G: Why wasn’t this introduced sooner?

JD: The only reason it wasn’t adopted sooner was that NSF International was still developing its standards. We wanted to make sure the NSF standard—which allows certain safe, gentle materials used specifically in personal care products—to be available for commercial use before we enacted these guidelines.

G: So does this mean Whole Foods will only sell USDA-certified organic body care products?

JD: Not necessarily. But, it means that all personal care products sold in our stores that make an organic claim on the label will be authentic. People tend to hear “organic guidelines for personal care” and assume that we will only carry USDA certified organic products. We want to make sure that when the word “organic” is used, it’s used correctly. There are many, many products that meet our standards that aren’t certified organic. We’ve asked suppliers to make these changes, because we believe very strongly that the meaning of the word “organic” shouldn’t change as you walk around the store.

G: Are you taking on any grassroots efforts to help people press the USDA and FDA to apply the organic standards to personal care items?

JD: We actually testified before the National Organic Standards Board last November, expressing strong support of the Board’s recommendation that the USDA regulate personal care products, commenting that:

We and our shoppers expect a consistent definition of “organic” throughout the store, and the jurisdictional borders between Federal agencies should not ultimately derail this goal. The consistent regulation of the “organic” label across all product categories will increase consumer confidence, improve integrity, curtail deceptive labeling claims, and substantially increase the use of USDA Organic agricultural ingredients in personal care products.


G: What came of that?

JD: In January, the FDA indicated that it was considering the issue, and in April, the USDA announced that it was pursuing discussions with the FDA. We are closely following the government’s work on this issue, and continue to offer our perspective and guidance. We hope that the agencies work quickly to come up with a solution to this problem, but in the absence of government regulation, our new guidelines will ensure that our shoppers can trust the organic label no matter what department they’re shopping in.

This is a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Thursday.

Read more on their blog.

Illustration by Brianna Harden


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