Organic labels look very pretty, and give a vague sense of safety and doing good for the planet, but it’s tough to figure out what they actually mean. I’ll take a shot at decoding them here.

Organic standards are usually set by governments these days. For the last decade governments around the world have gotten serious about coming up with legal definitions for the word “organic,” and developed countries now all have their own set of standards. Some people are working on getting major international standards set up, so we aren’t looking at an alphabet soup of different certifiers, but that’s still a ways off.

The different governments and agencies have all set up very similar standards, though. The basic outline:

  • no GMOs (genetically modified organisms, frankenfoods), irradiation, or sewage sludge can be used
  • synthetic chemical inputs must be avoided, and when they’re necessary, the farmers must use one of a list approved by the government
  • composting, interplanting, crop rotation, physically going out there and weeding, and similar methods are encouraged
  • the farm must use these techniques for a transitional period (usually three years) before being considered truly organic, so that any chemicals previously used have time to get worked out of the system
  • seeds and cuttings used in the farm must be from organic plants
  • the crop may only come in contact with permitted chemicals during harvesting and processing, and must not commingle with non-organic crops at the time

The acronyms you’ll most often see  on tea packages, and the governments they’re associated with, are:

  • USDA: this is the United States’ Department of Agriculture, and you’ll also see people mention the NOP, the National Organic Program that is managing organic foods. Here‘s an informative outline of their rules.
  • EEC or EU: the European Union. You’ll see EEC because it was the acronym of the previous European association that developed a set of organic standards, and the current legislation is closely modeled on the EEC’s standards. Here‘s a central document in their organic legislation.
  • CNCA: this is China’s administrative body that’s in charge of all accreditation, including organics. China’s organic standards program is called GAP, Good Agriculture Practice. No, I don’t know why a country with a character system of writing goes to the trouble of translating their goverment agencies’ names into English just so they can have confusing acronyms, too. Japan does it, too, maybe they felt left out. This is about CNCA organic certification.
  • HKORC: the Hong Kong Organic Resource Center. Hong Kong maintains a lot of autonomy, and its government has its own bit of bureaucracy that sets organic standards.
  • TAF: the Taiwan Accreditation Foundation, Taiwan’s accreditation board. Here‘s their website, but since the TAF accredits organizations for many kinds of certification, not just organic, so it doesn’t talk specifically about organics.
  • JAS: Japanese Agricultural Standards, the organic standards set by the Japanese government. Here‘s a helpful website with information about it.

But wait! There’s more! Governments are big and busy, and farms are small and busy, so someone has to help the farms comply with the standards the governments have set, as well as doing the regular audits that are usually required by the standards, to check that the farms are still complying. These companies have their own acronyms, and you’ll often see their seals on tea. There are a great many of these, but looking around our shop I saw IMO and OCIA labels on our tea. Since they’re businesses, they have snazzy websites of their own that are excellent places to look for information on organic certification, since a lot of people like to understand what they’re paying for before they hand over tons of money so people will come around all the time and ask them probing questions about synthetic chemical inputs. Definitely check out their websites if you’re curious about the whole organic certification process.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff