Consumers remain confused about the use of organic product claims, which has led to people increasingly opting for locally grown food instead, according to a new survey.
The responses from 850 natural and organic product consumers also revealed a mistrust of the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic seal, and concerns that the agency's organic standards were declining or weaker than they would like.
The findings reinforce the importance of easy-to-understand labels and consumer education, as confusion or hesitation in the supermarket aisle will ultimately impact purchasing decisions.
"This survey revealed that consumers are definitely looking for more clarity and definition in organic product classifications," said Matthew Saline, chief executive officer of Mambo Sprouts Marketing, the natural and organic direct marketing company that conducted the survey.
According to the findings, just under half of respondents thought the USDA organic seal indicated 100 percent organic contents. A quarter of consumers thought the seal meant at least 95 percent organic, while 16 percent thought it indicated a product was more than 70 percent organic, and 12 percent felt it meant "some organic".
Current standards set out in the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) state that a product must contain 95 percent or more organically produced ingredients in order to carry the agency's seal.
However, possibly because of their confusion surrounding the meaning of the USDA organic seal, only one quarter of survey respondents said they selected 'USDA Organic' products, while seven in ten said they opted for products labeled 'All Organic'.
USDA guidelines state that products labeled as '100 percent organic' must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) 100 percent organically produced ingredients. Those labeled 'organic' must contain not less than 95 percent organic ingredients. Products labeled 'made with organic' must contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients.
Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list specific organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
According to Mambo Sprouts Marketing, more than half of survey respondents said they would be more confident buying organic products if stores had their own organic food standards in addition to the USDA seal.
The group recommended that products also be labeled 'All Organic' where possible, and that marketers try to combine organic products with locally grown goods.
Indeed, the survey, which was conducted online last month, revealed that consumers preferred foods that were both local and organic. When asked to choose between the two, 36 percent of natural products consumers said they would choose local products over organic items, while 33 percent indicated the opposite. The remaining respondents said they were unsure which to choose.
Respondent comments reflected three distinct motivators for purchasing locally grown food, said the marketing group. These are: the belief that locally grown goods are better for the environment and sustainability due to reduced environmental impact of transporting food; a belief that much local produce is fresher and healthier - even if not certified organic; and a general mistrust or confusion regarding organic food labeling.
To view NOP guidelines on the labeling of organic products, click here .