Guide to Organic Certification

USDA’s introductory guide to organic certification

Organic Certification
of Farms and Businesses Producing Agricultural Products

By Ann H. Baier, National
Center for Appropriate
Technology (NCAT)
Agriculture Specialist and
Lisa Ahramjian, National
Organic Program (NOP)
Publications Manager
November 2012

What is organic?


All organic crops and livestock must be raised in a production system that emphasizes protection of natural resources; plant and animal health; preventative management of pests,
diseases, and predators; and compliant use of allowed materials. All organic products must
be protected from prohibited substances and methods from the field to the point of final
sale, whether it is a raw agricultural commodity or a multi-ingredient, processed product.

What is organic?………………………………1
What is organic certif ication?……..1
Who needs to be certif ied?………..1
What types of products
are eligible for organic
certif ication?……………………………………..2
Why is certif ication required?…….2
How do I pick a certifying
How do I get certif ied?…………………3
Is there a transition period?………..4
How much does organic
certif ication cost?……………………………4
How often does my
certif ication need to be
How are the certifying
agent and inspector related?……..4
What does the inspector
typically look for?…………………………….5
What happens if an
operation violates the
USDA organic regulations?………….6


rganic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been
produced according to the USDA organic regulations. These standards require the
integration of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of
resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. This means that organic
operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality while also conserving wetlands,
woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

This publication provides an overview of organic certification and provides some
additional resources for prospective organic farms and businesses.

What is organic certification?
Organic certification verifies that your farm or handling facility located anywhere in the
world complies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (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 (NOP) administers
these regulations, with substantial input from its citizen advisory board and the public.
Your farm or handling facility would be certified by a private, foreign, or State entity. These
certifying agents are accredited by the USDA and are located throughout the United States
and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that USDA organic
products meet or exceed all organic standards. Certification provides the consumer, whether
end-user or intermediate processor, assurance of the organic product’s integrity.

Can I use the USDA
organic seal?……………………………………..6

Who needs to be certified?

What about other labeling

If your farm or business receives more than $5,000 in gross annual organic sales, it must
be certified.

Once certif ied, can I export
USDA organic products to
another country?…………………………….6

If your farm or business receives less than $5,000 in gross annual organic sales, it is considered “exempt” from two key requirements.
Certification. Your farm or business doesn’t need to be certified in order to sell, label, or represent your products as organic. However, you may not use the USDA organic seal on your
products or refer to them as certified organic. If your operation is exempt and you would like
to use the USDA organic seal, you are welcome to obtain optional organic certification.

Organic System Plan. You are not required to document the specific practices and
substances used to produce and/or handle organic products.
You must follow all other requirements in the USDA organic regulations, including production or handling requirements and recordkeeping. You may not sell your products as
ingredients for use in someone else’s certified organic product. Buyers may require that you
sign an affidavit stating that you adhere to USDA organic regulations.

What types of products are eligible
for organic certification?
USDA standards recognize four categories of organic production:
• Crops. Plants that are grown to be harvested as food, livestock feed, or fiber 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/multi-ingredient products. Items that have been handled and packaged
(e.g., chopped carrots) or combined, processed, and packaged (e.g., bread or soup).

Related ATTRA

• Wild crops. Plants from a growing site that is not cultivated.
Preparing for an
Organic Inspection:
Steps and Checklists

Why is certification required?

Organic Standards for
Crop Production: Excerpts of
USDA’s National Organic
Program Regulations
Organic Standards for
Livestock Production:
Excerpts of USDA’s National
Organic Program Regulations

In the 1980s, there were multiple organizations in the United States offering certification
to different, and often conflicting, organic standards. Coupled with fraud and resulting
consumer mistrust, this landscape created a need for Federal standards and oversight.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 established national standards for the production and handling of organic agricultural products. The Act authorized USDA to create
the NOP, which is responsible for developing, and ensuring compliance with, the USDA
organic regulations.

Organic Standards for
Handling: Excerpts of USDA’s
National Organic Program

Consumers choose to purchase organic products with the expectation that they are grown,
processed, and handled according to the USDA organic regulations. A high-quality regulatory program benefits organic farmers and processors by taking action against those who
violate the law and thereby jeopardize consumer confidence in organic products.

Guide for Organic
Crop Producers

How do I choose a certifying agent?

Guide for Organic
Livestock Producers

You may choose any of the USDA-accredited certifying agents listed at
NOPACAs, which lists certifying agents by U.S. State and around the world.

Guide for Organic Processors

Each of these certifying agents is authorized to issue an equivalent organic certificate to
operations that comply with the USDA organic regulations. When selecting a certifying
agent, you may wish to consider the following criteria:
• Distance to your farm or business.
• Fee structure.
• Accreditation to other standards. See “What about other labeling claims?” below.
• Additional services, such as educational resources or member services.
Additional tips from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Institute on selecting
a certifying agent are available at

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Organic Certification

How do I get certified?
To become certified, you must submit an application for organic certification to a USDAaccredited certifying agent, which may be a State, private, or foreign organization. This
application must include:
• A detailed description of the operation to be certified.
• A history of substances applied to land during the previous three years.
• The names of the organic products grown, raised, or processed.
• A written Organic System Plan (OSP) describing the practices and substances
to be used.
Certifying agents first review your written application in order to ensure that practices comply with organic regulations. They will also schedule a qualified inspector to visit your operation to verify that you are following your OSP, maintaining appropriate records, and meeting
all requirements of the USDA organic regulations. Afterward, the certifying agent reviews
the inspector’s report. If the written application and the inspection report show that your
operation complies with the organic regulations, the certifying agent will grant an organic
certificate to your operation. The process is described below:
Figure 1: The Organic Certification Process
Producer or handler adopts organic
practices; submits application and
fees to certifying agent

Certifying agent reviews materials
to verify that practices comply
with USDA organic regulations

Inspector conducts an onsite
inspection of applicant’s operation

Certifying agent reviews the
application and the inspector’s
report to determine if the applicant
complies with the USDA organic

Certifying agent issues organic
certificate to applicant

Certifying agent reviews
the application and the
inspector’s report to
determine if the applicant
still complies with the
organic standards

Recertif ication

Inspector conducts an
onsite inspection of the
applicant’s operation

Producer or handler
provides annual update
and fees to certifying agent

Organic Certification

Page 3

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 previous 3 years. Until the full 36-month transition period is
met, you may not do the following:
• Sell, label, or represent the product as “organic.”
• Use the USDA organic or certifying agent’s seal.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical and financial assistance during the transition period through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
For more information, go online at


will need to be
renewed each year.

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 that you understand
your certifier’s fee structure and billing cycle. Typically, there is an application fee, annual
renewal fee, and assessment on annual production or sales, as well as inspection fees. If you
are well prepared for an efficient inspection, your inspection fees will typically be lower.
Some certifiers combine these costs into a single, fixed annual fee calculated for each operation; others charge them separately.
Once certified, the USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs reimburses producers and handlers up to 75 percent of organic certification costs. To learn more, visit

How often does my certification
need to be renewed?
Your certification will need to be renewed each year. Your certifying agent will request
recertification fees and an updated application (including an OSP) that reflects any
changes since your initial certification. The certifying agent will also schedule a qualified inspector to visit your farm or business to verify that you are following your
updated OSP, maintaining appropriate records, and meeting all requirements of the
USDA organic regulations. Most inspections are scheduled with you in advance, but
some inspections are unannounced. The inspector then submits a report to the certifier,
and, as described in the steps above, the certifier makes the certification decision based
on information provided in the report and your OSP.

How are the certifying agent and
inspector related?
Since the inspector is often the only person you meet face-to-face throughout the certification process, it is natural to equate the inspector with the certifying agent. Since both
parties have distinct roles, it is important to understand which services each party can and
cannot provide.
Certifying agent. The certifying agent is responsible for collecting fees, reviewing your
application and the inspection report, and determining whether your operation is certified
organic. The certifying agent must maintain strict confidentiality, protect your proprietary
information, and prevent conflicts of interest among the three key parties: you (the certified operation), the certifying agent, and the inspector.
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Organic Certification

Inspector. The primary role of the inspector is to gather onsite information and provide an
accurate report to the certifier. The inspector works at the direction of, and on behalf of,
the certifier.
The knowledge and experience of many inspectors make them an excellent resource on
matters ranging from pest management and livestock health care to marketing and sources
of purchased inputs. You have the option of hiring an organic consultant who may or may
not also be an organic inspector. To manage potential conflicts of interest, the following
rules apply:
Organic inspectors can do the following:
• Provide you with information about the certification process.
• Answer general questions about requirements of the USDA organic regulations.
• Describe the range of practices and/or types of documentation that the certifier
considers sufficient to demonstrate compliance.
• Make referrals to public resources or sources of information, such as Cooperative
Extension services or publications, USDA agencies, farm organizations, trade associations, and ATTRA resources.
Organic inspectors cannot do the following:


n organic
inspector must
not make the
certification decision.

• Make the certification decision.
• Give you advice or provide consultancy services for overcoming identified
barriers to certification.
• Inspect your operation if he/she is an immediate family member.
• Inspect your operation if he/she holds any type of financial interest in it.
• Inspect your operation if he/she has provided paid consulting services within one
year of application.
• Accept gifts, favors, or payments from you other than the prescribed fee.

What does the inspector typically look for?
On the farm, an inspector would observe your onsite practices and compare them
to your OSP; assess the risk of contamination from prohibited materials; and
perhaps take soil, tissue, or product samples as needed. The inspector will also look at the
following depending on your farm:
Crop inspection. Fields, soil conditions, crop health, approaches to management of weeds
and other crop pests, water systems (for irrigation and post-harvest handling), storage
areas, and equipment.
Livestock inspection. Feed production and purchase records, feed rations, animal living
conditions, preventative health management practices (vaccinations and other medications used or planned for use), health records, and the number and condition of animals
present on the farm.
At a handling or processing facility, an inspector would inspect your facility and compare their observations with your OSP. The inspector would evaluate the receiving,
processing, and storage areas used for organic ingredients and finished products. The
inspector would also analyze potential hazards and critical control points in your operation. The inspector would also ensure that your organic control points—procedures to
prevent contamination from sanitation systems, pest management materials, or nonorganic processing aids—are adequate. If your facility also processes nonorganic ingredients or products, the inspector will also evaluate your measures to prevent commingling
with nonorganic ingredients or products.
Organic Certification

Page 5

What happens if an operation violates
the USDA organic regulations?
Punishments may include financial penalties up to $11,000 per violation and/or suspension
or revocation of an operation’s organic certificate. If the USDA or your certifying agent suspects that your farm or business is violating the USDA organic regulations, USDA or the
agent may perform an unannounced inspection as part of the investigation.

Can I use the USDA organic seal?
The following products may be labeled with the USDA organic seal:


• Raw agricultural commodities that have been certified organic.

f the USDA or your
certifying agent
suspects that your
farm or business is
violating the USDA
organic regulations, they
may do an unannounced
inspection as part of their

• Processed or multi-ingredient products that have been certified organic and
contain 95 to 100 percent organic content.
The following products may not be labeled with the USDA organic seal:
• Any product that has not been certified organic by an accredited certifying agent.
This includes exempt operations, described in “Who needs to be certified?” above.
• Processed or multi-ingredient products that contain less than 95 percent
organic content.
If your product contains at least 70 percent organic content, it may be labeled as “made
with” up to three specified organic ingredients but not labeled with the USDA organic seal.
For example, a soup label’s principle display panel could state, “made with organic carrots,
lentils, and potatoes.” These products must be overseen by a certifying agent.
If your product contains less than 70 percent organic content, any organic ingredients may
be specified on the list of ingredients.

What about other labeling claims?
All marketing claims, including organic, must reflect reality and fulfill truth-in-advertising
rules. Many of these claims also require additional certification to government or association standards before they can be used. Examples of other claims that may or may not be
appropriate for you to include on your organic product label include: Kosher, Halal, Fair
Trade, biodynamic, free-range, grass-fed, humane, wildlife-friendly, and pesticide-free. Be
sure that any and all terms are appropriately used.

Once certified, can I export USDA organic
products to another country?
The United States currently has organic trade agreements that allow USDA organic products to be exported to Canada, the European Union, Japan, and Taiwan as long as the
terms of the agreement are met. These partnerships avoid the need for you to maintain
certification to multiple organic standards. You can learn more about each partnership at
If you want to export organic products to a country not listed above, you will need to use
a certifying agent that is accredited to that country’s organic standards. If you want to sell
products in both the United States and that country, you will need to maintain certification to both standards.

Page 6

Organic Certification

ATTRA-National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service is managed by the National
Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). ATTRA has produced more than 300 publications on a variety of sustainable-agriculture topics as well as a number of webinars and
other resources.
Independent Organic Inspector’s Association (IOIA)
IOIA is a professional, nonprofit association of organic farm, livestock, and processing
inspectors. IOIA provides comprehensive organic inspector training worldwide, promotes
consistency and integrity in the certification process, and addresses issues and concerns
relevant to organic inspectors.
International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)
IFOAM is the worldwide umbrella organization for the organic movement, uniting more
than 750 member organizations in 116 countries.
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES)
MOSES serves farmers striving to produce high-quality, healthy food using organic and
sustainable techniques that support thriving ecosystems and vibrant rural communities.
National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT)
The National Center for Appropriate Technology is a national, nonprofit organization that
offers programs in sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy, and community development. One of the sustainable-agriculture programs is ATTRA, listed above.
Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)
OMRI evaluates materials for use in most aspects of organic production and handling,
including processing. It publishes guides of approved inputs to help you understand which
substances are allowed (including restrictions or annotations, as applicable) and prohibited
in your operation.
Organic Trade Association (OTA)
This membership-based business association represents the organic industry in the United
States, Canada, and Mexico. It works to promote organic products in the marketplace and
to protect the integrity of organic standards.
USDA National Organic Program (NOP)
NOP’s mission is to ensure the integrity of USDA organic products in the United States and
throughout the world. The NOP implements the Organic Foods Production Act through
development and enforcement of the USDA organic regulations. One of its publications,
the NOP Program Handbook, helps organic operaitions and certifying agents comply with
the USDA organic regulations.
Organic Certification

Page 7

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the
basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status,
parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or
part of an individual’s income is derived from any public assistance program (Not all prohibited bases apply
to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program
information (Braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600
(voice and TDD). To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400
Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-9410, or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720-6382
(TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

This publication is available online at:
or by calling NCAT’s ATTRA project: 800-346-9140
Slot 92

For more information, please contact the
USDA National Organic Program:
ational Organic Program
Agricultural Marketing Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Stop 0268, Room 2648-S
Washington, DC 20250-0268
Tel. 202-720-3252
Fax 202-205-7808

Page 8

Organic Certification

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