Design and Determination: The Backstory of the Iconic ‘Organic’ Label

Americans care more and more about the labels on their food. But the regulatory bar isn’t as high as it should be.

(Photo: Wally Eberhart/Getty Images)

Jul 23, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Food labels are tricky things. They can be essentially meaningless, as in the case of "natural," or, as with the "USDA Organic" label, they can carry a huge amount of meaning. We care a lot about labels that matter: When America goes to the supermarket, nearly half of consumers are looking for the USDA certified organic label on the foods that they buy.

That’s one of the findings of a recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports that examined the public’s attitude toward food labeling. While the survey shows that consumers don’t quite have a full understanding of what "organic" means, it also shows that they have a high bar when it comes to the organic foods they buy. Part of the reason the label has achieved acclaim is because of the universal symbol that accompanies it. Consumers readily recognize the seal, yet it’s highly unlikely that they know who George Avalos is.

A nearly 20-year veteran of the USDA's Office of Communications, Avalos is, in a sense, the man behind "USDA Organic"—he designed the seal, the marker that has proven able to lead one of every two shoppers to consider a certified organic product over another.

Sales of organic products are projected to approach an estimated $35 billion in 2014, but when Avalos was assigned to design a logo for USDA certified organic products more than a decade ago, the idea of a national organic standard was untested. When "organic" was defined by a patchwork of state regulations, some retailers went so far as to convince companies not to label their products, thinking it would be a turnoff. Working in that environment at USDA, Avalos says, “I had no idea that it was going to get that big, frankly.”

But ever since the national organic standards were finally established in 2002—after more than a decade of drafting and deliberating—sales of certified products have continued to rise. Rather than turning off consumers, the seal has come to define not only an industry but a consumer movement for more sustainable food. It is one of the first labels designed to be consistently meaningful across different food categories, a consumer shorthand that serves as a guide to shoppers who want to make better choices but might not have time to do their own research. The food producers who use the label are fully accountable—to the public—making it a credible and singular consumer label.

Still, it took a few years for Avalos to realize the cultural weight his design was picking up.

“I don’t think I really made a big deal about it until I started walking into stores and saw it appearing on different things,” he says. “It’s funny actually, because I think my friends actually made more of a deal. They had a lot more questions, said a lot more things—‘Wow’ and this and that—saying, ‘You’re immortalized.’ ”

As for the concept, Avalos says the process was straightforward. “At that time the government and USDA were very attached to things with a circle—in fact a lot of the USDA labels and the government logos, they all have that rope around them and that eagle over the top.” He wanted to break with that, making a more graphic, modern seal. “I just wanted to make it very simple and use very intensified [type]face,” Franklin Gothic Extended.

The seal may have been a departure from “the good ol’ rope around an eagle,” but Avalos says he didn’t dig too deep into the regulations the label stands for when he was coming up with the design. “If you look at the logo, it’s basically a field of green, the crop rows, 'USDA,' 'organic,' and a circle,” he explained. “That’s basically all I did. I didn’t really have to go into reading anything about the USDA organic rules—I knew what it was, but I didn’t go deep into any concepts.”

Avalos says he hasn't given much thought to the seal's becoming a symbol of a lifestyle for some Americans, but he acknowledges that a shift is happening, with people thinking more about where their food comes from and eating more healthy, fresh foods—foods that might bear the seal he designed.

As the "organic" label gained popularity, many companies took note. But rather than submit their products to the rigorous standards of the "USDA Organic" label, some of them have lured consumers with “natural” and “all natural” labels. Though the words sound appealing, the labels don’t have to mean anything—there are absolutely no standards for the term. The Food and Drug Administration says it “has not developed a definition for use of the term 'natural' or its derivatives.”

So consumers are still in the dark. According to the Consumer Reports survey, 59 percent of consumers check to see if the product they’re buying is natural, and a majority of people believe that the term means the item was made from ingredients grown without pesticides, doesn’t include artificial ingredients, and doesn’t contain GMOs. It doesn’t have to mean any of those things.

Because of this, Consumer Reports is pushing to kill the "natural" label altogether. The "USDA Organic" label does a good job, and its standards are closely monitored. Consumers deserve labels that say more about our food—labels that are backed up by rigorous standards like Avalos’ "USDA Organic" seal.