Seal: USDA Organic

Main benefits: Minimal pesticide residues. • Animals raised without antibiotics or added hormones. • No genetically modified (or engineered) organisms (GMOs). • Strong standards, backed by federal law. • Annual on-farm inspections required.
Limitations: Weak animal welfare requirements.
Overview: By federal law, organic foods must meet Department of Agriculture standards regarding the way crops are farmed, how farm animals are raised, how foods are processed, and which types of ingredients can be used in the product. This applies even if the product only lists “organic” on the label without using the USDA Organic seal. Farmers must maintain or improve soil and water quality, and are prohibited from using most pesticides, as well as antibiotics and growth hormones for farm animals. For food processors, organic standards require that they use at least 95 percent organic ingredients in their products. (If the label states “made with organic [ingredients]”, it means at least 70 percent of the ingredients are certified organic.) In addition, most of the synthetic processing aids and artificial ingredients that are allowed in conventional foods are prohibited in organic ones.
Ratings Criteria
Reducing Pesticides

Using nonchemical methods to prevent insects, weeds, and plant diseases from harming crops is one of the basic tenets of organic farming. Pesticides can be used only after prevention methods have failed, and even then, federal law bars organic farmers from using any synthetic chemical pesticides that could be harmful to human health or the environment. (While there are nearly 900 pesticides approved for use in conventional, or non-organic, food production, only 30 synthetic pesticides are deemed safe and approved for organic production.) Natural pesticides are permitted, but those that pose risks to human health and the environment, such as arsenic-based or nicotine-based pesticides, are prohibited. Organic fruits and vegetables are less likely to have pesticide residues.


Read Why Reducing Pesticides Matters.

Reducing the Use of Drugs in Farm Animals

On organic farms, antibiotics can’t be used for growth promotion or disease prevention. The only exception is for chicks in hatcheries; they can receive antibiotics prior to their second day of life and their meat or eggs can still be labeled organic. If the animals become sick and need antibiotics, organic regulations require that they be treated, but their meat, milk, or eggs can’t be sold as organic. Any drugs used to make animals grow faster, such as steroid hormones and ractopamine, or hormones that are injected in dairy cows to increase their milk production, are also prohibited.

Read Why Reducing the Use of Drugs in Farm Animals Matters.

What Farm Animals Eat and the Quality of Their Diets

Organic farmers have to give their animals certified organic feed, meaning it was produced without prohibited pesticides or genetically modified (or engineered) seed. Animal byproducts, such as slaughterhouse waste and processed animal manure, which may be part of conventional feed, can’t be used as an ingredient in organic feed. For ruminants, such as beef cattle and dairy cows, whose natural diet consists of grass, the organic standards require that they get at least 30 percent of their feed from grazing on pasture during the months of the year when vegetation grows. However, beef cattle are exempt from this requirement for up to 120 days before slaughter, and the organic seal doesn't mean that beef and dairy products came from cows that were 100 percent grass fed.

Read Why What Animals Eat Matters.

Animal Welfare

Organic standards cover animal welfare, but in limited ways. Poultry and livestock must be raised in living conditions that accommodate their health and natural behaviors. These include year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water, and direct sunlight. Continual confinement in small cages is prohibited. 

However, the standards permit farmers to make physical alterations as needed, such as trimming chickens’ beaks, docking pigs’ tails, branding cattle with hot irons, and castrating pigs and cattle, as long as the methods used minimize the animals’ pain and stress. And the Department of Agriculture has not enforced the requirement for outdoor access for chickens. Moreover, organic standards don’t cover animal welfare during transportation to the slaughterhouse and at the slaughterhouse. 

Read Why Animal Welfare Matters.

Very Good

Genetically modified (or engineered) organisms, or GMOs, are prohibited on organic farms. Organic farmers can’t plant GMO seeds, and animals raised for organic meat, dairy, or eggs must not be given GMO feed. Food companies can’t use GMO ingredients in their organic products. However, the organic standards don’t require testing to ensure that levels of GMOs are below a certain threshold. 

Read Why Non-GMO Matters.



Farms that grow organic crops or raise organic animals, along with facilities that process organic foods, are inspected at least annually by Department of Agriculture-approved certifying agencies. Imported foods can carry the USDA Organic seal or be labeled organic if they meet USDA standards or if the USDA has determined that that country’s organic standards are equivalent.

Read Why Verification Matters.

Behind Our Ratings: Food-Label Seals & Claims

Consumer Reports takes a detailed look at the requirements, definitions, standards, and verification procedures behind food labeling seals and claims, and distills this information into CR ratings. Our goal is to inform and empower consumers so they can act to create demand for a healthier, safer food system.