Image courtesy of Flickr user Tim Psych.

When organic products began to hit the shelves in the 1970s—and for several years thereafter—the efforts of government agencies and NGOs in the United States to certify them created chaos. Both private organizations and individual state governments began to generate their own standards, resulting in overlapping standards as well as countless arguments among labeling agencies about how to certify products containing multiple ingredients.

Those varying and conflicting claims forced industry players that wanted access to foreign markets to take on either the costs of private accreditation or the equally steep costs of having their overseas shipments certified one at a time. Finally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with participation from several retailers (including Whole Foods Market) came to the rescue with a single USDA label for all organic foods. The USDA program set standards for organic farming and handling, and its seal may be used only on agricultural products that are between 95 and 100 percent organic (there are penalties for misuse). So far, 10,000 companies participate in the program and 25,000 products have been certified.