Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota
Having trouble understanding the requirements for organic certification? If so, you’re not alone! This overview is intended to provide an understandable introduction to the National Organic Program regulation and certification requirements.
The National Organic Program Final Rule (NOP) was developed by the USDA to implement the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). The NOP is based on recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to provide advice to implement OFPA and to review substances allowed in organic production and handling.
The USDA issued the first proposed rule in December, 1997. That proposed set of standards would have allowed genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, re-feeding of animal by-products, and other practices long prohibited in organic agriculture. That proposal received 275,603 comments, and was withdrawn.
The second proposed rule was issued in March, 2000. It was much more consistent with existing organic standards than the first proposed rule. It received about 40,000 comments, and served as the basis for the “Final Rule”, issued in December 2000.
The Final Rule contains an extensive list of definitions, organic production and processing standards, and the “National List” of allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances. It also contains labeling, certification, accreditation, enforcement, and testing requirements. The regulation went into effect on October 21, 2002. The text of the rule, along with policy statements, program updates, a list of accredited certifying agents, complaint procedures, and other related information can be found at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
Under the regulation, any agricultural product can be produced using organic methods. The NOP covers all agricultural products labeled and sold as “organic” or “organically produced”. The rule covers organic vegetable growers, orchardists, livestock producers, ranchers, processors, and handlers. Parts of the regulation even apply to retailers. As an organic operator, it is good for you to understand the requirements for other sectors, since these may affect parts of your operation.
While the NOP regulation is relatively new, organic standards and certification have existed in the United States since the mid-1970’s, beginning with California Certified Organic Farmers, Oregon Tilth, the Organic Growers and Buyers Association (MN), and the Northeast Organic Farming Association (Northeast). As the markets for organic products grew, so did the number of organic certification agencies. Though the standards of the different agencies, and the states which defined “organic” through legislation, were similar, there were differences. These differences sometimes resulted in trade difficulties and disputes between regions over whose standards were more “organic”.
OFPA was passed by Congress in 1990 to begin the process of resolving the differences and establishing one set of national standards. Those standards are now in place. All certifiers who operate in the U.S., and all certifiers who certify products sold as “organic” in the U.S., must follow the NOP, and they must be accredited by the USDA to show that they have the competence and freedom from conflict of interest to certify organic products.
“Organic production” is defined by the regulation as “a production system that is managed … to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
In simplified terms, the National Organic Program standards require:
All operations producing and/or selling organic products must keep records to verify compliance with the regulation.
Such records must: 1) be adapted to the particular operation; 2) fully disclose all activities and transactions of the certified operation in sufficient detail as to be readily understood and audited; 3) be maintained for at least 5 years beyond their creation; and 4) be sufficient to demonstrate compliance with the regulation. The operator must make the records available for inspection.
Organic System Plan forms are typically provided by certifying agents as part of the application process. The plans must be updated annually, and operators are required to notify their certifying agents of all changes to the operation which might affect the operation’s certification status. Organic operations must follow their Organic System Plans, and they must be inspected at least annually.
All producers and handlers who sell over $5000/year in organic products must be certified. Producers and handlers who sell under $5,000/year do not have to be certified, but they still have to follow the NOP. Non-certified organic producers can sell their products directly to customers or to retail stores, but their products cannot be used as organic ingredients or feed by other operations, and they cannot use the “USDA Organic” seal.
Though the NOP requirements are similar to previous organic standards, there are some significant differences, and there are areas of continued controversy, confusion, and clarification. Despite the level of detail in the NOP, some interpretation is required for local variations and new conditions. It is always a good idea to check with certification agencies to get your questions answered, especially before purchasing or applying materials.
For more information on Organic Certification please see all of eOrganic's certification articles.
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.