Consumers today have more options than ever when navigating the grocery store aisle. Several varying labels can be found in the meat and produce section that specify the different ways each product was produced— conventional or organic. But what’s the difference?
USDA approved organic agriculture are products produced using sustainable practices that avoid the use of most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. The USDA estimates that the U.S. has the largest market in the world for organic goods, valued at over $39 billion.
One of the primary differences between conventional and organic crops is the use of GMOs, which cannot be present in 100 percent USDA certified organic products. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants that are developed by combining genes or sections of genetic material from one plant or organism to another to create a desired trait—such as resistance to an insect. GMOs have a rigorous review process and must be proven safe to grow by the USDA, safe for the environment by the EPA, and safe to eat by the FDA. After being on the market for about 20 years, there is no evidence to suggest that GMOs are harmful.
USDA organic, however, does not mean that a crop is pesticide or fungicide free. Organic farmers, like conventional farmers, have more than 20 options of pesticides and fungicides, as outlined by the USDA Certified Organic program, and some of these do include copper and sulfur anti-fumigants, and naturally occurring Bt toxin.
Another difference between conventional and organic can be found in meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Animals raised for USDA organic meat and dairy must consume organic plants and feed, and cannot be raised using antibiotics or growth hormones. However, according to the FDA Guidance 209 and 213, farmers, veterinarians and animal pharmaceutical companies have until December 2016 to phase out growth promotion uses for medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals. Many farmers and food companies have already removed these antibiotics, as can be seen through numerous recent announcements by food companies.
Conventional farmers do not constantly treat farm animals with antibiotics. When it is necessary, farmers follow ethical and legal requirements and label dosing instructions to administer antibiotics to treat sick, or at risk of being sick, animals to support humane practices. Organic farmers may never use antibiotics during the animal’s lifespan, and if an animal gets sick and is administered antibiotics, it must be removed from the herd and can no longer be labeled as organic. Even those against antibiotic use agree that sick animals should be treated.
For conventional farming, there are stringent protocols in place to ensure meat, milk, poultry, and egg products are not sent to market with antibiotics still present. Animals must spend a minimum of 30 days without antibiotics before entering the food supply. All meat, milk, poultry, and egg products are tested and inspected by U.S. National Residue Program (NRP) for Meat, Poultry and Egg Products, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Additionally, many of the antibiotics used on the farm are ionophores, or antibiotics not used for human health. These, and all antibiotics, prevent infection, ensure herd health and minimize diseases.
When labeling products, food companies are allowed to label their foods as “USDA Organic” if a minimum of 95 percent of the ingredients in their product are organic. Only products labeled as 100 percent organic are 100 percent organic.
All farmers and ranchers want food that is safe for consumption. Whether produced by conventional or organic standards, the entire food process must have the necessary precautions to keep food safe and free from contaminants, and consumers should take the same precautions when washing and preparing the foods in their home.
 USDA. Organic Agriculture. April 17, 2015 http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contenti...