What Does ‘Certified Transitional’ Mean?

Q: What does “certified transitional” mean on a food label?

A: The term “certified transitional” on a package means the food was grown on a farm undergoing transition from conventional to organic production.

Among the many requirements needed to attain USDA “certified organic” status is a three-year transition period from when a farm stops using substances prohibited under the rules of organic production to when it can officially become “organic.” During this period, the foods, though basically grown organically, cannot be sold as organic, thus presenting an economic challenge to farmers since organic production methods are more costly.

Considered a stepping stone to organic production, “certified transitional” is a way to increase availability of foods that are produced more sustainably. Currently, demand for organic foods exceeds supply.

Several accredited certifying agents (ACAs) offer certification to transitioning farms that have not used any banned substances (notably most synthetic pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds) for at least one year and meet other organic standards, such as using crop rotation. The “certified transitional” label can then appear on the product, though it does not include the word “organic” anywhere. Kashi—credited with creating this new marketing category—has the label on its new cereal, Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Biscuits.

The problem is that the transitional label has not been standardized or had federal oversight. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) warns that there is no assurance that transitional farms will ever fully implement organic practices and that this can be a way for them to just hike their prices with no intention of ever becoming organic. Other products may carry even fuzzier labels, such as “responsiblygrown,” with no standardization.

On the horizon: The good news is that earlier this year the USDA announced a new National Certified Transitional Program that will provide oversight to certifiers and will be based on “a consistent set of rules,” as developed by OTA. Though it will take some time to implement, this more-stringent program “will ensure that transitional certification acts as an effective on-ramp to organic production ratherthan a mechanism to create an ‘organic-light’ marketing term,” according to OTA.

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