Demystifying FDA and USDA Terms

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concord grapesThere are plenty of terms floating around the foodservice industry lately — natural, organic, sustainable and local, among others. It can be difficult to determine which words mean what or which are even regulated. Sysco wants to ensure you’re ordering the right products for your needs, so we’re defining key terms and noting their differences to make sure your decisions are the right ones for your business.

The term “natural” is often used to describe a range of products, from produce to cereals to ice cream, but what does it actually mean? According to the FDA, “natural” has no actual definition as it applies to food products. The USDA, however, indicates meat, poultry and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. That said, the “natural” label does not include any standards regarding farm practices, and there are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products that do not contain meat or eggs. Sysco offers the Sysco Natural line of products, which includes a wide variety of fresh commodity and value-added produce and beverages that are wholesome, high-quality and minimally processed.

For “fresh,” the FDA does have regulations in place, stating the term can only be used for foods that are raw and preservative-free. Terms like “fresh frozen” or “frozen fresh” mean the food was quickly frozen while still otherwise fresh, to preserve nutrients. Sysco frozen products are processed in this manner to ensure the freshest, most flavorful produce.
According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), “organic” is a labeling term that indicates the food or other agricultural product has been produced through USDA-approved methods. These stringent methods integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster resource management, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used. That means “organic” products must be free of hormones, pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics. The NOP standards are annually verified by USDA-approved certification bodies. Products must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients in order to feature the “100% Organic” label. Foods that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients may only feature the “Organic” label. Finally, products containing at least 70 percent organic ingredients may be described as “Made with Organic Ingredients,” but cannot be labeled “Organic.”

"Sustainable agriculture" was addressed by Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill. Under that law, the term sustainable agriculture was defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs;
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Sysco is continuously working to help improve our suppliers’ sustainable agriculture practices, as well as our own. A great example is our Integrated Pest Management (IPM) initiative, designed to maximize crop output while minimizing environmental impact, by responsibly using fertilizer, pesticides, energy and water.

In summary, “natural” products have no artificial ingredients; “fresh” products are raw or unprocessed; “organic” products are free of hormones, pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics; and “sustainable” products have been grown with minimal impact on the surrounding water, environment and wildlife. Keep these definitions in mind and note the various differences the next time you’re selecting products for your operation!

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