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National Organic Program

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) authorized the formation of a National Organic Program (NOP) to establish organic standards, and to require and oversee mandatory certification of organic production. NOP has the responsibility to implement organic standards with substantial input from its citizen advisory board and the public. NOP also accredits state agencies and private organizations that certify organic producers and handlers, and oversees enforcement of the standards. The USDA’s role is to act as overseer to the Program.

NOP Crop, Livestock and Handling Standards

Organic Crop Standards:

Organically produced crops must be grown on land that has been free of prohibited substances for three years prior to harvest. The standards describe the organic agricultural methods that include managing soil fertility, when and how manure may be applied to crops, crop rotation, and composting. Prevention and mechanical, cultural and biological control is considered a grower’s first approach to pest management, but the Act establishes a list of acceptable and prohibited materials that may be used when first approach methods fail. 

Organic Livestock Standards: 

Standards for organic livestock production are meant to assure both an organic product to the consumer and living conditions for farm animals, which limit stress and promote good health. They address animal welfare, substances used in health care and feeding, as well as herd or flock management and housing. 

Organic Processed Products Standards:

Standards for the processing, handling and labeling of organic products cover all steps in the process; from receiving organic raw materials, acceptable processing aids and ingredients, appropriate packaging materials and labeling, to cleaning methods and pest management at processing facilities. 

Organic Food Labeling

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed four categories of organic labels, based on the percentage of organic content in a product. 

Learn More About Organic Labeling

Residue Testing

The authority for certifiers to test organic products for residues of prohibited substances has always been part of the NOP regulations, and beginning January 1, 2013, regulations went into effect requiring that certifying agents take samples from at least 5% of the operations they certify on an annual basis.  Organic operations must implement systems that prevent contamination of organic products, and residue sampling is an effective certification tool to assess the efficacy of these contamination prevention measures.  Additionally, the regular monitoring of organic products for prohibited residues further deters fraud in the marketplace.  When residues of prohibited pesticides are detected above 5% of the EPA tolerance for the specific pesticide, the sampled crop may not be sold as organic and must be diverted to the conventional market.  Certifiers may sample and test organic products for any type of prohibited substance residue, including pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, heavy metals, and pathogenic organisms.

These NOP resources help certifying agents comply with residue testing requirements:

Final Rule  Proposed Rule  Memo to Certifying Agents Pilot Pesticide Report: Validated Testing Model  How Samples Should be Collected Laboratory Requirements Target List of Prohibited Pesticides How to Respond to Positive Residues


These OTA resources help certifying agents comply with residue testing requirements:

OTA’s comments on NOP’s Proposed Rule for Periodic Residue Testing OTA’s presentation on Residue Testing under the NOP

International Trade

USDA organic products are produced in the United States and many other countries around the world. The National Organic Program also has trade arrangements with several nations to facilitate the import and export of organic products. The specific requirements vary for each arrangement.

How to File a Complaint


Anyone who suspects a violation of the USDA organic regulations can file a complaint. When you report an alleged violation, provide as much information as possible to help ensure a thorough investigation. NOP will review your complaint and determine how best to proceed. This may include coordinating a thorough investigation with the operation’s certifying agent. If you provide your contact information, the NOP will contact you when the case is closed.
OTA encourages those who are aware of any standards violations to file a complaint with NOP, as it is important to safeguard the integrity of organic products in the marketplace. Only by following strict national organic standards can those within the organic industry respect the value and benefits that organic farming and production offer to consumers and the health of our planet.

Key NOP Resources

USDA Organic Regulations               National List of Allowed and Prohibited Materials               National Organic Program Handbook             

Rulemaking & Notices               NOP Final and Draft Guidance

Scott Rice

Sr. Director, Regulatory Affairs

(202) 695-1268