What the food label means, and why you'll be seeing more of it soon

By Marnie Soman Schwartz
September 26, 2016

If you haven't heard about "transitional" food or seen a "certified transitional" label at the market yet, you likely will soon. Interest in transitional crops-ones where farmers are in the process of converting their fields from conventional agriculture to organic-has been picking up steam, says Nate Lewis, farm policy director of the Organic Trade Association. And the concept has been in the news more ever since Kashi announced a partnership with organic certifier QAI, Inc. (Quality Assurance International) a few months ago, as well as their first certified transitional cereal, Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits. (Find out which healthy cereals will help you live longer.) The new QAI program allows for products to become certified as transitional and earn a mark they can use on packaging.

Why Buying Certified Transitional Helps Farmers

"There's a huge demand for organic raw materials, but not enough production," says Peter Golbitz, co-chair of the Organic and Non-GMO Forum and CEO of food and agriculture consulting firm Agromeris. (Only about 1 percent of U.S. farmland is organic.) But for farmers to convert their land, they basically have to comply with all the rules of organic for three years before they can get organic certification. During that time, their costs go up, but they're still only able to sell their crops at conventional prices. The result: It's really tough to get farmers to convert large amounts of land. The hope is that by recognizing and certifying that farms are in the process of transitioning, they can demand a premium price for their products.

What's the Difference Between Certified Transitional and Certified Organic?

If you're concerned about synthetic pesticides, then buying transitional will help you get food that has been managed without them since transitional crops have been grown in a way that complies with organic standards. (What to know about buying organic foods.) However, you may be getting a smaller percentage of synthetic pesticide-free ingredients since the guidelines for QAI's certified transitional program don't line up perfectly with the organic standard. For example, if a product has the USDA organic seal on it, it means that it was made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients; if it has the words "made with organic" on the package, you know that at least 70 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. To earn QAI's certified transitional mark, a product needs just over half (51 percent) transitional materials.

What to Look for In the Store

Right now, there are several organizations certifying crops as transitional. The QAI program is one of them, and Kashi hopes that other brands will become certified in an effort to grow organic agriculture, says Nicole Nestojko, senior director of supply chain and sustainability at the company. CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) also has a certified transitional program, as does nonprofit organic advocate and certifier Oregon Tilth. The Organic Trade Association has submitted a standard to the USDA for a certification program that would be overseen by the federal government and would align 100 percent with organic standards, with the only exception being that the fields would be between 1 and 3 years into transition. (Land can't stay indefinitely in a transitional state, since the end goal is to convert it to organic.) The association is proposing that the phrase "USDA certified transitional" for both produce and finished grocery products to be regulated; if all goes well you could see it in stores as early as next year.