FAQ: Becoming a Certified Operation
I heard a rumor that a certain organic farm uses pesticides secretly between inspections. How can we be sure the produce we purchase is authentically organic? Thanks!
The USDA National Organic Program is set up to provide a transparent certification system. In this case, you should first confirm that the organic farm is certified by a USDA/NOP-Accredited Certification Agency (ACA) by asking the farmer to show you their operation’s organic certificate (certificates are publicly available documents). Contact the certifier on the certificate to confirm the status.
Ask the farmer. Remember, even if the rumor of ‘pesticide use’ is true, there are nonsynthetic pest control materials which are allowed for use in organic production (under specific conditions).
If you have reason to believe there is a violation, gather information/evidence (who what where when how) and submit a complaint to the NOP/USDA or the ACA. An educated consumer is the best enforcer.
How can my operation become certified to the USDA organic standards?
Organic certification verifies that your farm or handling facility located anywhere in the world complies with the USDA organic regulations and allows you to sell, label, and represent your products as organic. These regulations describe the specific standards required for you to use the word “organic” or the USDA organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products. The USDA National Organic Program administers these regulations, with substantial input from its citizen advisory board and the public. Organic Certification Fact Sheet (2 page .pdf)
Who Certifies Farms or Businesses?
Your farm or handling facility may be certified by a private, foreign, or State entity that has been accredited by the USDA. These entities are called certifying agents and are located throughout the United States and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that USDA organic products meet all organic standards. Certification provides the consumer, whether end-user or intermediate processor, assurance of the organic product’s integrity. List of Certifying Agents
What Can I Be Certified to Produce?
The USDA organic regulations recognize four categories of organic products:
- Crops: A plant that is grown to be harvested as food, livestock feed, fiber, or used to add nutrients to the field.
- Livestock: Animals that can be used for food or in the production of food, fiber, or feed.
- Processed products: Items that have been handled and packaged (i.e. chopped carrots) or combined, processed, and packaged (i.e. soup).
- Wild crops: Plants from a growing site that is not cultivated.
Do I need to be certified?
Most farms and businesses that grow, handle, or process organic products must be certified. Overall, if you make a product and want to claim that it or its ingredients are organic, your final product probably also needs to be certified.
Who Needs to Be Certified? (5 page .pdf) | Overview: Getting Certified
Is There a Transition Period?
Yes. Any land used to produce raw organic commodities must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years. Until the full 36-month transition period is met, you may not:
- Sell, label, or represent the product as “organic”
- Use the USDA organic or certifying agent’s seal
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical and financial assistance during the transition period through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) National Organic Initiative.
How Much Does Organic Certification Cost?
Actual certification costs or fees vary widely depending on the certifying agent and the size, type, and complexity of your operation. Certification costs may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Before you apply, it is important to understand your certifier’s fee structure and billing cycle. Typically, there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on annual production or sales, and inspection fees.
Once you are certified, the USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs can reimburse you up to 75 percent of your certification costs. USDA Financial Assistance Programs
Organic Certification Cost Share Programs Fact Sheet
Additional Funding Resources for Organic Farming from Farm Service Agency (FSA)
Can I Use the USDA Organic Seal?
All raw certified organic products may be labeled with the USDA organic seal. Learn more about organic labeling, including which processed or multi-ingredient products may use the USDA organic seal: Organic Labeling
How Do I Get Certified Organic?
To become certified, you must apply to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. They will ask you for information, including:
- A detailed description of the operation to be certified.
- A history of substances applied to land during the previous three years.
- The organic products grown, raised, or processed.
- A written Organic System Plan describing the practices and substances to be used.
Organic Certification Process:
- Producer or handler adopts organic practices; submits application and fees to certifying agent
- Certifying agent reviews applications to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations
- Certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant complies with the USDA organic regulations
- Certifying agent issues organic certificate
Annual Recertification Process:
- Producer or handler provides annual update to certifying agent
- Inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant’s operation
- Certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant still complies with the USDA organic regulations
- Certifying agent issues organic certificate
- Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) publications and resources for the National Organic Program (NOP)
Regulations and Resources
Those seeking certification will need to become familiar with the following resources:
USDA Organic Regulations 7 CFR Section 205 includes all USDA organic standards, including prohibited practices, requirements, and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Materials.
National Organic Program Handbook. This compilation of guidance documents, policy memos, and instructions is intended to clarify policies and assist those who own, manage, or certify organic operations with complying with USDA organic regulations. Prospective certified operations should refer to NOP 2601: Five Steps to Certification, which provides general instruction on the certification process.
Draft Guidance Documents. Before being finalized and included in the Program Handbook, draft guidance documents are typically open for public comments and amended as needed.
Use of the USDA Organic Seal. This page discusses the appropriate use of the USDA organic seal and provides versions of the seal at both print and screen resolution.
Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) (21 page .pdf, 75kb). The Act that established the NOP and its authority to enforce agricultural products sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” within the U.S.
NOP Preamble. If you are interested in the history of the USDA organic standards, you may want to review the preamble to the final rule, which established the National Organic Program.
**For operators in California. Please note that California operates a State Organic Program, which allows this state to mandate additional requirements before an operation could obtain certification. Certifying agents should also be able to answer questions and provide oversight of any additional requirements in California. Learn more
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