This is the fifth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.
Through defined farming practices, organic principles promote ecological balance, foster the cycling of resources, and conserve biodiversity. To understand what that means when it comes to the label on your food, those principles require some more explanation.
Let’s take a closer look at a snapshot of sustainable food production, using the lifecycle of organic cheddar to get a fuller picture.
Before it can be turned into cheese, organic milk must come from a certified organic cow. The organic cow cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics, and its feed must be 100 percent organic. Organic feed comes from land not treated with any prohibited substances (e.g., synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides) for at least 3 years prior to harvest. The land must be managed in a way that maintains soil fertility and minimizes erosion, while distinct and defined boundaries make sure prohibited substances don’t come into contact with organic fields. The animal grazes on organic pastures for the entire grazing season, which must be at least 120 days a year, and receives at least 30 percent of its nutrition from pasture during the grazing season.
Throughout its life, the animal is raised in living conditions that accommodate its natural behaviors and support its health and welfare. If it gets sick and needs treatment with antibiotics or other drugs, organic standards require that it receive these treatments but then must be removed from organic production. In other words, product from treated animals can no longer be sold, labeled, or represented as organic. However, operators are forbidden to withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status.
Assuming the farmer has followed the regulations up to this point, the organic cow is milked and the milk transported to a certified organic processing facility. The organic milk then goes through the “cheddaring” process, during which an enzyme called “rennet” is added to separate the curd (semi-solid chunks) and whey (liquid). (Rennet is an example of a non-agricultural substance that is allowed in organic food products).
Both the certified organic dairy farm and the cheese processing facility are inspected by a National Organic Program-accredited certifying agent at least once a year. These top-to-bottom inspections ensure that operations are meeting or exceeding all of the USDA organic regulations, maintaining important records, and following their written organic system plans. For example, the dairy farmer’s Organic Farm plan outlines how he or she manages pastures, keeps the cows healthy, and maintains the land’s soil and water quality, while the cheese facility’s Organic Handling plan covers how organic ingredients are sourced and equipment is cleaned between batches, especially if the facility processes both organic and non-organic cheeses. Records allow certifying agents to ensure organic integrity from the raising of the animal to the processing of the milk to the transporting of cheese to market. So, next time you see an organic product in the store, you can know how it came to bear the label, and have confidence that the National Organic Program is working to ensure organic integrity from farm to table .