Are “organic” and “certified organic” the same thing?

by | Sep 26, 2023 | Featured blog post, Lifestyle

The short answer is “no”. There are many vendors that claim organic on their packaging, but are they certified organic? And when is it legal to claim that a product is organic?

First, just because they use some—or all—organic ingredients, it doesn’t mean that they’re certified organic or that they can claim organic on their labels.

“Organic” on the ingredient panel

There’s something called “Organic Processed Product” registration. In California, every year, vendors need to file their Organic Processed Product registration with the Department of Public Health if they want to use “organic” on their ingredient panel.

They must follow specific requirements to obtain and maintain their registration—from proving that they’re using certified organic ingredients to verifying the quantities of organic products they sold in each organic category, along with their annual gross sales or revenue from these organic products. As you can see, there are tracking and reporting requirements associated with the “Organic Processed Product” registration.

Upon approval, this registration allows them to put the word “organic” next to the verified organic ingredients in their ingredient panel. Without this registration, they’re not allowed to claim organic ingredients in the ingredient panel. And they’re especially not allowed to call the final product organic.

You should also know that the list of ingredients should appear in descending order on the label. For example, a product using 2% organic chamomile should be listed at the end of the ingredient list if the chamomile is present in the smallest quantity in the final product.

What does “certified organic” mean?

The organic certification takes the organic processed product process many steps further. It’s much stricter and has a lot more requirements. A vendor may only claim certified organic status if they follow the rules of a national or international governing body. In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the national organic program.

Before a vendor can apply for organic certification, they must hold a valid “Organic Processed Product” registration. And they must prove that the ingredients they use are not only organic, but certified organic. There are many ingredient providers that claim to sell organic ingredients but when you ask for their certification, they don’t have it. So, in order to make sure that a vendor uses certified organic ingredients, they must submit the ingredient provider’s current organic certification with their own application.

The USDA has different levels of organic certification:

  • 100% organic – When the final product only contains 100% certified organic ingredients.
  • Organic – When the final product contains 95% or more certified organic ingredients with the caveat that the remaining percentage of the ingredients must be on USDA’s organic-compliant list. This means that a vendor can’t just use whatever ingredient they want for the remaining up to 5%.
  • Made with organic (MWO) – When the final product contains between 75% and 94.99% certified organic ingredients. Again, for the remaining ingredients, they must choose organic-compliant ingredients to be able to claim MWO status.

Certified organic is more than just ingredients

Using certified organic ingredients in a product, however, is only the beginning. Vendors must follow strict rules all the way from how the products are made to how the manufacturing facility and the manufacturing tools are maintained. For example, there are specific guidelines on the types of sanitizer manufacturers are allowed to use to sanitize their tools with or the types of pest control materials are permissible at the facility. And there are rules around handling organic products in the presence of non-organic ones during manufacturing, storage, packing and distribution.

But being certified organic doesn’t stop there. It even extends to record keeping—down to the lot number of not only the final product, but that of each ingredient, and much more.

The organic certification covers operations all the way from ingredient sourcing to manufacturing and distribution. It’s really about running a certified organic operation—year after year because vendors must go through the audit process every year if they want to maintain their certification.

How do I know if a product is certified organic?

I didn’t give much thought to the USDA organic seal on a product until Red Pantz became a certified organic operation. This process gave me a completely different perspective.

Products that qualify for the “100% organic” and “organic” certification will carry the USDA organic seal, so look for the logo. Products in the “Made with organic” (MWO) category will call out up to 3 ingredients on the product as organic. For example, they’ll say “Made with organic amalaki, chamomile and rose”, but they’ll likely list all the certified organic ingredients in the ingredient panel.

Certified organic operations will also include information about the certifying agency and the manufacturing location on the label.

Why are there such few organic skincare products on the market?

Getting this certification is a tall order for skincare brands. For one, if you look at the product label, you’ll see that skincare products usually contain ingredients that are not only NOT organic compliant, but they’re on the “no” list. Second, their processes and manufacturing facility must also be organic certified—another layer of complexity most manufacturers don’t want to take on.

To me personally as a founder, it was important to go the extra mile to get the USDA organic certification for our products from skin care to teas. This is one of our commitments to delivering premium-quality products and experiences that are good for you, our community and better for our planet.

If you want to know if you’re purchasing something that’s certified organic, look for the USDA organic seal on the box or the “made with organic (MWO)” claim along with the name of the certifying agency, or ask for the vendor’s organic certification.


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