Can a food be only partly organic?
Under today’s standards, yes. If it has more than one ingredient.
Under the latest USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) organic standards, food producers can slap a “USDA Organic” label on their products as long as 95% of the ingredients, by weight, are organic. This means that 5% of your food may be composed of ingredients that would by themselves violate national organic standards.
Does this make the USDA Organic label worthless? Far from it. Even if 5% of your product does not meet organic guidelines, you still are eating something that is predominately organic. Plus, you can always look for the words “100% organic”, which may be, and are very likely to be, used on products that are made of 100% organic ingredients. Of course, if you are eating a whole food, such as a tomato or a potato, then you need not worry whether it is 100% organic: it is either 100% organic, or 100% not organic.
Foods that do not meet the 95% threshold, and that therefore cannot use the USDA Organic seal, may still be able to advertise that they are “made with organic ingredients”, if they consist of at least 70% organic ingredients by weight. Hence a blueberry cereal made of at least 70% organic ingredients by weight, whose blueberries are all organic, may claim to be “made with organic blueberries”. But it won’t show the USDA Organic stamp unless it exceeds 95% organic ingredients.
Sound complicated? It is, and some in the industry want to simplify the standards so as to avoid consumer confusion. But as with most laws and regulations in a democracy, this one is a product of compromise among many interested parties, and it may be the best we can expect for the time being.
Plus, if you are the type of person who cares whether your product is 95% organic rather than 100% organic, you are probably the type of consumer who can learn to look for the phrase “100% organic”. The system could be simpler, but the information is out there if you want to learn the ropes.