The Biggest Thing People Get Wrong About Organic Meat and Produce

published Jul 10, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: CC Buckley

If buying organic meat and produce is high up on your grocery priority list, then you likely keep your eyes peeled for the USDA Organic Seal (which looks like this), prominently displayed somewhere on the packaging. What you might not know, however, is that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in order for that seal to appear on a package at all.

While I won’t list out all of the steps in great detail (if you really want, you can read them here), I’ll give you the SparkNotes version: In order to be eligible for organic certification, the applicant must officially apply, hire a certifying agent, pass rigorous inspections, and spend upwards of thousands of dollars (depending on the size of their organization). This process can also take years to complete in full.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Of course, these requirements are good things. (It means that you can trust that whatever meat or veggies you are purchasing truly abide by organic standards.) But the time commitment and financial burden often shuts out a lot of smaller producers who sell their wares on a more local scale. These smaller producers may follow all the necessary rules and regulations that are required but, if they can’t afford the certification, you might not know it. With that in mind, here’s something to remember if you’re looking for organic meat and produce at farm stands, co-ops, or farmers markets.

Don’t avoid purveyors that can’t officially advertise their products as “Certified Organic.” “I’ve witnessed many customers walk right past stalls that don’t sell “Certified Organic” produce. This is because most people aren’t aware of the intricacies and obstacles in place for small-time farmers,” says Lauren David, a Kitchn contributor and a former farmers market manager.

“Many farmers do have sustainable practices but aren’t legally allowed to use the word “organic” per the USDA, unless they pay a large fee for official certification (which can take around three years to obtain). So if you see signs at a stall that say, ‘No spray’ ‘No chemicals, or ‘No pesticides,’ this is the farmer’s way of saying, “We grow organically!”

The lesson: If you’re a stickler for the strictly organic stuff, but want to shop small, you might just have to do a little more research, ask a few more questions, and find trustworthy purveyors to support.

Is there anything you buy that always has to be Certified Organic? Tell us in the comments below!