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Organic Certifications and Food Labels

Below are the most common certifications and labels in our area.

The best way to know what you're eating is to talk to the farmers themselves, ask questions, and even visit the farm or ranch.

Organic Certifiers

Below are the most widely-known certifiers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Region: USA
Regulates: Production side only
Notes: First national certification in the U.S. The USDA has been a controversial topic lately for changing their organic standards. (More...)

Quality Assurance International (QAI)
Region: International
Regulates: Production side only
Notes: Largest international certifier.

  California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF)
Region: California
Regulates: Production, sustainability
Notes: One of the first certifying agencies in North America. The California Organic Foods Act of 1990 was modeled after CCOF standards. Founded Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) to help further research related to organic farming and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) to research and disseminate information on what materials are allowable in organic farming.

Marin Organic Certified Agriculture (MOCA)
Region: Marin County, CA (predominately)
Regulates: Production, sustainability
Notes: One of the first California government agencies to certify organic growers and handlers.

Monterey County Certified Organic (MCCO)
Region: Monterey County, CA
Regulates: Production, sustainability
Notes: First California county agency to certify organic growers and handlers.

Fair Trade Certified
Region: Developing countries
Regulates: Production, sustainability, human rights
Notes: For products grown overseas (i.e., coffee and tea), look for this certification. They're helping build "a more equitable and sustainable model of international trade that benefits producers, consumers, industry and the earth."

New Farm U.S. Organic Certifiers Database
Browse all certifiers, compare two certifiers side by side, or search for certifiers by particular criteria.

Common Food Labels

Many labels are not universally agreed upon, so below are the most popular explanations. Aside from "certified organic", "biodynamic", and "certified humane", none of these terms are regulated or verified by the government or third-party agency.

100% Vegetarian Diet: Animals are not fed any animal byproducts. Supplements or additives should not be used.

Beyond Organic: After the USDA created the "USDA Organic" label, many farms dropped their certification because they felt the new standards diluted the integrity of "organic". Many of these farms use methods more stringent than (i.e., beyond) organic.

Biodynamic: This holistic method is based on the philosophy that all aspects of the farm are part of an interrelated ecosystem. Biodynamic farmers work in harmony with nature and use a range of techniques to foster a sustainable, prolific environment.

Cage Free: Birds are raised without cages. They may have been raised indoors or outdoors; there’s no indication of how crowded their conditions were.

Electronic Pasteurization or Electronically Pasteurized: Food has been irradiated.

Free Range/Roaming: Animals have some access to the outdoors, but they didn’t necessarily go outside. As long as a door to the outdoors is left open for some period of time, an animal can be considered Free Range.

Free Walkers: Hens are housed indoors, but they can move around and have unlimited access to food. Similar to "Cage Free".

GMO-Free or No GMOs: Food was produced without the use of genetically-modified organisms.

Grain-Fed: Animals were raised on grain (most commonly corn), which may be supplemented with animal byproducts and other [strange] matter such as cement dust. Unless the label says "100% Vegetarian Diet," there is no guarantee that the animal’s feed was not supplemented with animal byproducts or is organic.

Cattle naturally eat grass and cannot digest a diet consisting purely of grains. Many large feedlots use grains to quickly fatten the cattle, which fosters disease and the use of antibiotics.

Grain Finished: Animals are fed grain shortly before slaughter. Some producers use this method to add the fat and flavor most people are currently accustomed to.

Grass-Fed: Animals eat only grass. Most graze naturally while roaming the pasture, but technically, they could be raised indoors. Grass-fed meats should be free of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, grain and animal byproducts.

Grass-Fed/Grain Supplemented: Animals are raised on grasses, but grains are added slowly into the diet. By controlling the amount of grain, the animals do not become sick or develop digestion problems that grain-only cattle develop.

Heritage: Foods are derived from rare and endangered species or breeds. Most, but not all, heritage farmers use sustainable production methods. Heritage food production saves animals from extinction and preserves genetic diversity.

Humanely Raised: Animals are raised in the most humane, sanitary, and ethical conditions from birth to slaughter. Growth hormones and regular use of antibiotics are prohibited. Producers must comply with local, state and federal environmental standards.

IPM (Integrated Pest Management): Pests are controlled using natural methods, such as habitat manipulation, biological control, and pest-resistant plants. Pesticides are used in the smallest possible amounts, only when other techniques prove inadequate.

Natural: USDA "natural" applies to meat and poultry only, and means animals don’t contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or artificial ingredients. This label does NOT indicate the product is sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.

No Antibiotics Administered: No antibiotics were administered to the animal during its lifetime.

No Hormones Administered or No Added Hormones: Animals were raised without added growth hormones. By law, hogs and poultry cannot be given hormones anyway.

Organic: Organic foods cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, sewage sludge, and they cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically-grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture. (More...)

Pastured or Pasture-Raised: Animals were raised on a pasture and ate grasses and foods found there.

Raised Without the Routine Use of Antibiotics: Antibiotics were not given to the animal to promote growth or to prevent disease, but may have been administered if the animal became ill.

rBGH-Free or rBST-Free: Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or bovine somatotropin (rBST) are GMO hormones used in dairy cows to artificially increase their milk production. Organic milk is rBGH- and RBST-free.

Sustainable: Foods whose production does not deplete the natural resources from which it came or was produced. It is more of a philosophy or way of life rather than a label. (More...)

Treated by Irradiation or Treated with Radiation: Food is exposed to high doses of gamma rays, X-rays, or electron beams. Irradiation can kill nearly all bacteria in food, both good and bad. It is not effective against mad cow disease and viruses.

Food labels' content excerpted from The Sustainable Table.

For additional information on certification and switching to organic, see More Resources.