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How Do I Know If It’s Really Organic?

Understanding labels and the origin of your food can prove it's the real deal

En español | Q. How can I be sure that those more expensive “organic” foods are the real deal?

A. On loose fruits and vegetables, look at the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker. If the produce is organic, the code will contain five-digits beginning with 9. Non-organic counterparts will have four digits. (Example: Organically grown bananas will be 94011, compared to 4011 for those treated with chemicals and pesticides.) A five-digit PLU beginning with 8 means the item is genetically modified, which some research indicates may pose health risks.

To bear the green-and-white “USDA Organic” seal, packaged organics must be certified by any of the 50 USDA-accredited certified agents and contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Those with at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients may use the words “made with organic ingredients” but cannot have the green-and-white USDA seal. Some may have labels with a different color combination. Mislabeling can result in fines of up to $11,000 per violation.

At farmers stands and markets, where organics may cost less because of low shipping costs and no middlemen, it can be trickier to vet what you’re getting – especially when they lack PLU stickers.

Under the USDA’s National Organic Program, farmers who market their products as "organic" also must – or at least should – have their wares certified by a USDA-accredited agent (or face fines if caught). If it’s touted as “certified,” you can ask to see a copy of the organic certification paperwork. Vendors are supposed to have it on-hand.

Some farmers use legitimate organic growing practices but choose not to enter the certification process. Those earning less than $5,000 a year selling at booths are exempt. So even if not touted as “certified,” you should feel free to ask, "How was this food grown?" and let the answer guide your choice to buy.

Also of interest: 'Tis the season for the farmers market.

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