Certification Background - Organic Trade Association
Organic Trade Association
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Certification Background


Certification is the key to the National Organic Program. It assures that organic growers and handlers are, in fact, adhering to the law. Since October 21, 2002, it is a federal offense to label any food product as "organic" unless it has been certified. All uses of the labeling term "organic" for food are regulated.

The certification process focuses on the methods and materials used in production. There are three main requirements:

  1. the methods and materials used in production must meet organic standards
  2. there must be clear and ongoing documentation of these methods and materials
  3. there must be a paper trail tracing a product back to its production site, in order to verify the methods and materials used in its production.

Who must be certified?

With two exceptions, everyone selling products labeled as "organic" must be certified. This includes producers of organic livestock, food, and fiber crops, and "handlers" of organic products. A "handler" is any operation that "receives, processes, packages, or stores agricultural products." Some examples: a processing company that buys organic tomatoes and makes canned spaghetti sauce; any distributor who "substantially transforms, repacks or relabels organic agricultural products." This last distinction is meant to exclude brokering, warehousing or trucking operations that merely store or move finished processed products from place to place without altering them in any way.

The exceptions:

  • Growers who gross less than $5,000 annually are exempt from certification. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommends that these growers sign a declaration (available from certifying agencies) stating that they understand and are in compliance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), and that they have written an organic farm plan which can be made available to the public upon request. NOSB further recommends that growers falling under this "Small Farm Exemption" may not use the term "certified organic" when marketing their crops, and may market through direct sales only (farm stands, farmersí markets, or direct sales to a retailer).
  • At present, retailers arenít required to be certified. NOSB, however, recommends certification for retailers that engage in activities that qualify them as handlers (i.e., repacking bulk products such as dry beans or grain).

How the certification process works

A grower or handler seeking organic certification submits an organic farm plan or organic handling plan to a USDA-accredited private or state certification program. The organic plan must detail all current growing or handling methods, and any materials that will be used. The plan also covers future intentions and improvements to all areas of production. Even growers or harvesters of organic wild crops, such as fiddlehead ferns, must develop a plan showing that harvesting practices will not be destructive to the environment or to the future productivity of the crop.

Records of all management practices and materials used in organic production must be kept for five years.

In addition to assessing the organic plan, the certification agency performs annual on-site inspections of each farm or handling operation participating in its program. Certification is then either awarded or denied. User fees are collected from each grower or handler to cover the cost of the certification program.

Accreditation of certifying agents

Now that the federal rule has been implemented, only USDA-accredited agencies may act as certifiers. Certifying agencies may be either state or private, but they must have expertise in organic farming and handling techniques. They must be able to fully implement all aspects of the certification program, including hiring an adequate number of inspectors to carry out on-site inspections.  See a list of OTA member certifiers here.

Accreditation may be granted by USDA for a period not to exceed five years, and may be renewed. User fees are collected from each certifying agency to cover the cost of the accreditation program.

Certifying agents must keep records of all of their activities for ten years. USDA is required to conduct on-site audits of all records. USDA or a state organic program may suspend a certifierís accreditation if the certifier is not in compliance with OFPA.

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