Explaining Food Certifications & Labeling: Organing, Non-GMO, Halal, Kosher, & More!

Matt Suggs

In today’s global market, the clarity and integrity of food labels have never been more critical for both producers and consumers. For food producers, understanding and implementing various food certifications and labeling can be a strategic move towards accessing broader markets and gaining consumer trust. On the other hand, consumers are increasingly seeking transparency in their food choices, driven by health, ethical, and dietary considerations. This dual perspective underscores the importance of food certifications such as Organic, Non-GMO, Halal, and Kosher, among others, in bridging the gap between consumer expectations and product offerings.

The Significance of Food Labels in Making Informed Choices

Food labels serve as a vital communication tool between producers and consumers. They offer essential information regarding the contents, production methods, and origin of food products. In an era where health consciousness and dietary restrictions are on the rise, labels empower consumers to make choices aligned with their values and needs. For producers, clear and accurate labeling is not just a regulatory requirement but a means to differentiate their products in a competitive marketplace. Labels like “Organic” or “Non-GMO” can significantly influence purchasing decisions, reflecting a product’s quality and safety standards.

The Role of Certifications in Ensuring Product Quality and Safety

Certifications go beyond basic labeling by providing a verified assurance of a product’s compliance with specific standards. These standards can relate to environmental sustainability, ethical practices, and health safety. For instance, the “Organic” certification implies adherence to stringent guidelines on pesticide use and farming practices. Similarly, “Non-GMO” products are verified to be free from genetically modified organisms, addressing consumer concerns about genetic engineering in food production.

Halal and Kosher certifications cater to specific dietary laws in Islam and Judaism, respectively. These certifications not only facilitate religious observance but also signify a level of product scrutiny that appeals to broader consumer bases valuing purity and ethical processing.

Food Certifications & Labeling


There are a number of different regulatory bodies that can certify something as organic. One of the most common in the US is the USDA. There are 3 different levels of Organic certification:

  1. “100% Organic”: all ingredients are organic
  2. “Organic”: at least 95% of ingredients are organic (these products often include trace amounts of non-organic oils or
  3. “Made with organic ingredients”: at least 70% of ingredients are organic. They may not use the USDA Organic seal (t

In order to produce a certified organic product, a manufacturer must meet the organic certification requirements set by a recognized certification body, such as the USDA Organic or the EU Organic standards. These requirements include using organic ingredients and following specific production and handling practices. The certification process involves inspections, documentation, and compliance with the defined organic standards. So while a manufacturer can produce organic products without being certified, they cannot label or advertise their products as organic without the proper certification.

Understanding the distinctions between “100% Organic,” “Organic,” and “Made with Organic Ingredients” labels is crucial when navigating the world of organic products, especially in the context of the stringent standards and certifications required for organic agriculture and production. Each of these labels carries significant meaning regarding the composition and certification of organic products, reflecting their adherence to established organic standards set by recognized certification bodies like the USDA Organic in the United States or the EU Organic standards in Europe.

100% Organic: The Pinnacle of Organic Integrity

Products labeled as “100% Organic” represent the pinnacle of organic integrity. This designation is reserved for products that contain exclusively organic ingredients and processing aids, excluding water and salt. This label indicates that the product has been produced and processed under the most stringent organic practices, without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or irradiation. For manufacturers, achieving the “100% Organic” label requires a comprehensive commitment to maintaining organic practices across the entire production chain, from the farm to the final product. This commitment is verified through rigorous inspections and compliance checks by certifying agencies, ensuring that every component of the product meets the highest organic standards.

Organic: High Organic Content with Minimal Concessions

Products simply labeled as “Organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, with the remaining 5% allowed to be non-organic only if certain approved substances are not available in organic form. This category allows for a slight concession in terms of non-organic content, provided these elements are on a pre-approved list of additives and processing aids that meet specific criteria for health, safety, and minimal environmental impact. The “Organic” label still signifies a high level of compliance with organic standards, embodying the principles of sustainable and ethical production practices. The rigorous certification process for these products ensures that the majority of their components are organically sourced, with only minor exceptions allowed under strict conditions.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Significant Organic Presence

The “Made with Organic Ingredients” label is applied to products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients, with the remaining 30% subject to strict restrictions regarding the use of GMOs and non-organic substances. While these products contain a significant proportion of organic components, they cannot display the USDA Organic seal or similar certifications due to the higher percentage of non-organic content. This category offers consumers a product with a substantial organic composition, while also providing manufacturers with some flexibility in sourcing ingredients. The certification process for these products, while less stringent than the “100% Organic” or “Organic” categories, still demands rigorous adherence to organic practices for the majority of the product’s composition.

For further reading on USDA Organic certification, here are some links:



Non-GMO certification guarantees that a product does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Manufacturers must undergo testing and verification by an accredited organization, such as the Non-GMO Project. They must provide documentation demonstrating that their ingredients and production processes comply with the non-GMO standards.

The term Non-GMO is often misleading overall though, as the USDA’s definition of GMO is “An organism produced through genetic engineering”, which is vague enough to include common practices as cross breeding and selective breeding, which farms have done since they started farming. Additionally, the USDA has not defined what a “Non-GMO” product is.

A manufacturer must be certified by a Non-GMO certification organization (such has the Non-GMO Project) in order to label a food as Non-GMO.

USDA Organic vs. Non-GMO

USDA Organic Certification

The USDA Organic certification is a label that indicates the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organic certification requires adherence to certain standards:

Synthetic Chemicals: The use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering is prohibited in organic production.

Natural Resources: Organic farming practices must protect natural resources, avoid soil erosion, and conserve water.

Animal Welfare: Livestock must be raised in a manner that accommodates their health and natural behavior, including access to the outdoors.

Non-GMO Certification

Non-GMO stands for Non-Genetically Modified Organism. The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization, offers a third-party Non-GMO Verification Program. This label assures that a product has been produced according to consensus-based best practices for GMO avoidance, including testing of risk ingredients. The Non-GMO label focuses specifically on the genetic makeup of the plants or animals involved:

Genetic Engineering: The key aspect of Non-GMO certification is the absence of genetic engineering or genetically modified organisms in the production process.

Testing: Products are tested to ensure they meet the set threshold for GMO presence, which is typically below 0.9% for most products.



Kosher certification ensures that food products meet Jewish dietary laws and are prepared according to specific rituals.

Manufacturers must comply with the requirements of a kosher certification agency, such as the Orthodox Union (OU) or the Kosher Supervision of America (KSA). This involves ingredient scrutiny, facility inspections, and regular supervision by a kosher authority.

A manufacturer must be certified by a Kosher certification agency in order to label a food as Kosher. This is a fairly easy process, so if you require a Kosher certification and your co-man doesn’t currently have it, it might be something they are willing to obtain.

The five largest Kosher certifying bodies, known as the “Big Five,” include:

  • OU Kosher
  • OK Kosher
  • KOF-K
  • Star-K
  • CRC

These certify more than 80% of US Kosher Foods

Kosher: Understanding Its Significance and Certification

Kosher foods adhere to the Jewish dietary laws known as kashrut, which detail what foods can be consumed and how they must be prepared. The word “kosher” itself means “fit” or “appropriate,” indicating that the food meets the dietary standards set forth by these laws. These laws are comprehensive, covering aspects from the types of animals that can be eaten to the way they must be slaughtered and processed.

The Basics of Kosher

Kosher dietary laws are divided into three main categories: meat (fleishig), dairy (milchig), and pareve (neither meat nor dairy). Certain animals are considered inherently non-kosher, such as pigs and shellfish. Kosher mammals and birds must be slaughtered in a specific manner known as shechita, and the blood must be thoroughly removed since consuming blood is forbidden.

Dairy and meat products cannot be mixed, and this separation extends to the utensils and equipment used to prepare and consume these foods. Pareve foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, can be eaten with either meat or dairy products, provided they haven’t been processed with equipment used for non-kosher foods or those containing meat or dairy.

The Importance of Kosher Certification

Kosher certification is a critical aspect for food manufacturers and consumers alike. It serves as a guarantee that the products comply with kashrut. The demand for kosher-certified products extends beyond the Jewish community to include people who view kosher certification as an indicator of quality, safety, and adherence to certain dietary or ethical standards. This broader consumer base includes vegetarians, those with lactose intolerance, and individuals concerned with humane animal treatment.

Kosher certification agencies, such as the Orthodox Union (OU), Star-K, and OK Kosher Certification, play a significant role in this process. They inspect food manufacturing facilities and review ingredients, production processes, and equipment to ensure compliance with kosher laws. Once a product is certified, it can display the certifying agency’s symbol, which aids consumers in identifying kosher products easily.

Kosher and Other Certifications

For businesses, obtaining kosher certification can be strategically combined with other certifications, such as organic, non-GMO, or gluten-free, to meet a wider range of consumer demands. Agencies like NSF International offer joint auditing programs, allowing products to achieve multiple certifications simultaneously, which can save time and reduce inspection costs. This approach not only appeals to those strictly observing kashrut but also to consumers interested in organic or health-conscious diets, showcasing the versatility and comprehensive nature of kosher certification.



Halal certification indicates that food products comply with Islamic dietary laws and are permissible for consumption by Muslims.

A manufacturer must be certified by a Halal certification agency in order to label a food as Halal. This process is a bit more difficult than Kosher, so if you require a Halal certification, you should look for a manufacturer who already is certified Halal.

Halal: Principles and Global Impact

Halal, an Arabic term meaning “permissible,” refers to what is allowed under Islamic law. In the context of food, halal standards dictate what Muslims can eat and how food must be prepared. The criteria for halal are derived from the Quran and the Hadiths, covering a wide range of food items and preparation methods.

Halal Food Guidelines

The halal dietary laws primarily focus on meat and animal by-products. Animals must be healthy at the time of slaughter, and the act must be performed by a Muslim, who invokes the name of Allah during the process. This method of slaughter is known as Zabiha, and it ensures the humane treatment of the animal, with swift and precise cutting to minimize suffering.

Halal laws also prohibit the consumption of certain substances, such as alcohol and pork, and any products derived from non-halal animals. Foods and drinks containing alcohol or intoxicating substances are also considered non-halal.

The Role of Halal Certification

Halal certification is vital for ensuring that food products meet Islamic dietary laws, providing Muslim consumers with the assurance they need to make informed dietary choices. Halal certification bodies assess food products, ingredients, and manufacturing processes to ensure compliance with halal standards.

This certification is particularly important in non-Muslim countries, where halal food might not be as readily available or identifiable. The presence of a halal certification mark on food packaging helps Muslim consumers to quickly and confidently identify products that meet their dietary restrictions.

Halal Certification’s Global Reach

The demand for halal-certified products has grown significantly, reflecting the increasing global Muslim population and the rising awareness of halal food among non-Muslim consumers who associate it with ethical and health considerations. The halal food market has expanded beyond traditional meat products to include a wide range of grocery items, health supplements, and even cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, illustrating the comprehensive nature of halal certification.

Halal certification agencies operate worldwide, ensuring that products meet the strict standards required for halal designation. This global network of certification bodies facilitates the international trade of halal products, contributing to the growth of the halal food industry and promoting cross-cultural understanding and respect for Islamic dietary laws.

FairTrade Labeling: Principles and Practices

FairTrade labeling represents a system designed to offer better deals and improved terms of trade for farmers and workers in developing countries. The FairTrade Mark, recognized globally, is a symbol of ethical sourcing, ensuring products meet a set of social, economic, and environmental standards. This system supports nearly 2 million farmers around the world by providing them with higher pay, better working conditions, and improved sustainability practices.

Not all products can carry the FairTrade certification. The international FairTrade system focuses on certifying ingredients from the Global South, such as cocoa, bananas, and coffee, which are typically grown in these regions. This focus aims at ensuring justice for the most vulnerable workers around the globe.

Overview of FairTrade Principles and Practices

FairTrade certification revolves around a holistic blend of criteria, incorporating social, economic, and environmental standards. These standards include core requirements and development goals aimed at bringing about positive change for producers and their communities. The FairTrade Standards are designed to support the sustainable development of small producer organizations and agricultural workers in developing countries.

The Impact of FairTrade on Farmers and Global Trade

The impact of FairTrade on farmers and the broader context of global trade is significant. By adhering to FairTrade standards, producers receive a FairTrade Minimum Price and a FairTrade Premium, which are intended to cover the sustainable cost of production and allow for investment in community projects, respectively. This system empowers farmers and workers by providing them with more control over their lives and decisions that affect their communities.

Moreover, FairTrade certification helps to raise awareness among consumers about the need for ethical purchasing decisions and the importance of supporting fair and sustainable practices in the global trade system. As a result, products carrying the FairTrade Mark often appeal to a broad audience, extending beyond the typical consumer base to include those who are concerned with ethical and sustainable practices in agriculture and trade.

Certified Naturally Grown: Principles and Practices

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is a grassroots alternative to the USDA Organic certification, tailored for small-scale, direct-market farmers and beekeepers who employ natural practices to grow food and raise livestock. CNG is built on the foundation of peer inspections, transparency, and direct relationships between farmers and consumers. This model emphasizes community and connection, fostering a support network among farmers who are committed to sustainable agricultural practices.

Understanding the Principles Behind Certified Naturally Grown

The principles of Certified Naturally Grown are deeply rooted in the organic movement, emphasizing soil health, ecological balance, and biodiversity. CNG standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The program is designed to be accessible and affordable, ensuring that small-scale producers can achieve and showcase their commitment to eco-friendly practices without the prohibitive costs and paperwork associated with larger certification bodies.

CNG’s approach is unique in that it relies on a participatory guarantee system (PGS), where inspections are carried out by other farmers, creating a community of practice and mutual support. This peer-review process encourages the sharing of knowledge and experiences, strengthening the local farming community and ensuring adherence to organic principles without the formalities of third-party certification.

How CNG Supports Sustainable and Local Agriculture

Certified Naturally Grown supports sustainable and local agriculture by providing a credible and transparent assurance to consumers about how their food is grown. CNG farms often sell their produce directly to consumers through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and local food cooperatives, which helps to keep the food system local and reduces the carbon footprint associated with long-distance food transport.

By opting for CNG certification, farmers commit to practices that protect the environment, conserve biodiversity, and sustain the health of the soil. This certification enables consumers to make informed choices, supporting a food system that is good for the planet and the people. It also provides farmers with a platform to distinguish their products in the market, appealing to consumers who value environmentally friendly and ethically produced food.

CNG’s emphasis on community-based certification and support not only helps in maintaining high standards of organic farming but also fosters a sense of solidarity among small-scale farmers. This collective approach contributes to a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system, where knowledge, resources, and best practices are shared for the common good of the community and the environment.

Meaningless Labels

Additionally, there are a number of labels that don’t mean anything. They are not regulated or defined by the FDA or USDA, so are technically meaningless and are more often used as marketing. Manufacturers must meet the criteria of a halal certification authority, such as the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) or a local halal certifying organization. This involves ingredient verification, facility inspections, and adherence to halal production processes.

There are also misleading labels that technically have a definition, but it doesn’t mean what consumers perceive it.

  1. “Natural” – The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit. (Source: FDA)
  2. “Free-range” – this means the animal was allowed access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, this claim doesn’t specify for how long or even if the animal actually ever went outside, and often “free-range” chickens are packed in so tightly that even if they do have access to the outdoors, they can’t move.
  3. “Farm-raised” – this is a meaningless label because all chickens are raised on farms, therefore any chicken or egg could be labelled as “farm-raised”

Frequent Questions

What Does “UD” Mean on Food?

“UD” on food packaging stands for “Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America” and indicates that the product is kosher. The “D” often indicates that the product is dairy or has been processed on equipment also used for dairy products. This certification assures consumers that the product complies with a strict policy of kosher food laws, including cleanliness, purity, and quality.

What is the Difference Between Kosher and “U”?

The difference between kosher and “U” lies in the certification symbol used on food products. The “U” inside a circle, known as the “OU” symbol, represents the Orthodox Union, one of the largest kosher certification agencies in the world. When a product is marked with this symbol, it means it has been certified as kosher by the Orthodox Union. Kosher, more broadly, refers to foods that comply with traditional Jewish dietary laws.

What is Kosher vs. Halal?

Kosher and halal are terms that refer to the dietary laws observed in Judaism and Islam, respectively. While both sets of dietary laws dictate permissible foods and the proper way of slaughtering animals, there are differences in the specifics. For example, kosher law prohibits the consumption of shellfish and requires the separation of meat and dairy products, while halal law does not have such restrictions. Halal also specifically prohibits alcohol, whereas kosher law allows it in moderation and as long as it adheres to kosher guidelines.

What Does the Organic Label Mean?

The organic label indicates that the product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organic certification requires that farmers and processors comply with a set of federal guidelines, which include restrictions on the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.

What Does Non-GMO Mean?

Non-GMO means that a product does not contain genetically modified organisms. GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. Non-GMO products are preferred by some consumers who are concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts of genetically modified foods. Products that are Non-GMO Project Verified have been tested and confirmed to meet the rigorous standards for GMO avoidance set by the Non-GMO Project, an independent organization.