Guide to Organic Coffee Labeling

For those of you who are looking for healthy organic coffee and are constantly befuddled by unclear labeling, here is a handy guide to organic coffee labeling. Ever since 2002 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had strict guidelines defining what constitutes organic coffee and any other organic food or drink. Another issue that we address in our guide to organic coffee labeling is that there are many great organic coffees such as some of the Colombian organic coffee brands that abide by different sets of standards such as UTZ and do not seek USDA organic coffee certification.


USDA Rules and Regulations for Organic Coffee

Organic coffee is a single ingredient food. As such coffee that qualifies as USDA organic coffee will have a USDA Organic label. When a food in general and specifically a coffee product has more than one ingredient you may see labeling such as 100% organic, organic, or made with organic ingredients. Only 100% organic coffee bears the USDA organic seal. Here is the breakdown:00% Organic (This means what it says. The package contains 100% organic products.)

  • Organic (95% to 99% of this bag of coffee is organic.)
  • Made with organic ingredients (This label means that 70% to 94% of the bag by weight is organic coffee.
  • And, products with some organic ingredients may list them on the package as being organic ingredients.

Other Standards

UTZ certified coffee and Rainforest Alliance certified coffee commonly are organic coffees. The long term goals of UTZ are good agricultural practices, safe and healthy working conditions, abolishment of child labor, and environmental protection. However, a grower does not need to accomplish all that is required in the first year. This allows a grower to sign up to get his coffee UTZ certified, learn what is necessary, and grow into the long term requirements of the program. Because of the close tracking feature of all UTZ Certified products, consumers of healthy organic coffee produced by these growers can be assured of product quality as well as the farming practices that brought it to market. The process of getting certified by Rainforest Alliance is similar to getting UTZ Certified. Growers start by achieving partial success and grow into the eventual requirements. Rainforest Alliance requires that coffee growers meet half of the criteria for any given area of concern to start with and meet eighty percent of requirements overall. These criteria include ecosystem preservation, safety of wild animals, watershed conservation, fair hiring and labor practices, appropriate safety measures for workers, and strict adherence to agrochemical use standards. An additional feature of this program is the prohibition of genetically modified crops.

Too Expensive to Seek Certification

A coffee grower with a small farm in the highlands of Panama, Colombia, or Costa Rica will commonly produce organic coffee. At the same time he cannot pay the fee (commonly $500) to have a certifying agency come and certify him every one to three years. He needs to see a sufficient profit from getting certified and if this does not happen many will simply quit seeking certification even though they produce excellent organic coffee. It is, in fact, the goal of Buy Organic Coffee to seek out these growers and help them bring their products to a broader market.

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