What Are the Requirements for Organic Certification?
By Susan Beal
As people worldwide understand the importance of taking control of their health, they are also taking control of their eating habits, and that is one factor that contributes to the demand for organic certification of food products. The growing demand for organic produce is one of the driving forces behind the surge in the number of organic farms. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, there are over 22,000 certified organic farms in the nation, and that count increases every year, if not more often.
The USDA has strict regulations regarding the use of the term “organic,” and how, when, and where the USDA Certified Organic seal could be used on farm-produced products, including food (dairy, vegetable, and animal), animal feed, and fibers that are used to manufacture clothing. Organic certification offers benefits to food producers and handlers in a variety of tangible and intangible ways.
- It allows food producers (growers, livestock and dairy farmers) to charge more for their commodities.
- Organic certification encourages support for local economies.
- Organic certification allows vegetable farming operations to use the USDA certified organic seal in all of their marketing and promotion endeavors.
The Five-Step Organic Certification Process
The USDA Organic Label is a sign to consumers that the food products they are thinking about buying from any market farming operation, comply with the strict USDA Organic Regulations and the requirements of the National Organic Program.
Step One – Development of an Organic System Plan
The Organic System Plan lays the foundation for the entire organic certification process. Every operation – whether it’s a large or small farm, must provide government inspectors with a detailed plan that will show certifying agents how the farm plans to comply with all federal regulations.
- The plan must address everything from how the farm goes about tilling the land to planting seeds (or transplanting seedlings that were started elsewhere) and harvesting.
- The plan must also include a list of every substance (chemical or otherwise) that the farm intends to use and a detailed protocol for monitoring the use of those substances.
The plan must also provide details about all proposed recordkeeping systems that will prevent crops that will be certified as organic from mixing with or spreading into fields where non-organic vegetables grow. The Organic System Plan also requires a detailed outline of the manner in which the farm will prevent crops meant for organic certification from having ANY contact with forbidden substances as they are described in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
Step Two – Implementing the Organic System Plan Before Requesting Certifying Agent Review
The small farm must implement the Organic System Plan before the farm asking for an authorized certifying agent to review it. Certifying agents may come from a foreign, state, or private organization or company. All certifying agents have USDA accreditation. The primary role of certifying agents is ensuring that any organic farming operation and the products they grow or produce, meet the required organic standards as set forth by the National Organic Program.
Step Three – The Inspection Process
Certification is ultimately contingent on the results of the comprehensive inspection. This thorough inspection is tailored to the type of farm and the products or commodities that the farm grows and produces.
For a vegetable farming operation, the inspectors will conduct:
- Field inspection
- Soil condition inspection
- Crop health inspection
- Weed management protocol inspection
- Insect and pest management protocol inspection
- Seed starting system inspection
- Diseased or contaminated plant disposal inspection
- Water source and irrigation system inspection
- Plan for preventing cross contact between organic and non-organic plants
Step Four – Certifying Agent’s Review of Inspection Report
The certifying agent goes over the inspection report and compares the findings with the information he or she obtained when they did the preliminary inspection. The certifying agent will also evaluate the risk assessment as it relates to the potential for crops to get contaminated from prohibited sources. The risk assessment will also include a list of every potential hazard that could cause contamination. But the inspection will also provide the certifying agent with information about the manner in which the small farm will deal with, control, or prevent the spread of infection.
Step Five – Farm Receives Decision From Certifying Agent
Once the certifying agent is confident that the vegetable farming operation complies with the required standards, the operation gets a certificate that includes a list of all the farm vegetable crops that can be sold and labeled as organic.
A continuing requirement of the certification process requires the farm to keep records of changes or modifications to its practices and procedures. The fact that a farm goes through the five-step process to get the organic certification is not a guarantee of continued certification. Maintenance of the organic certification is contingent upon the results of the yearly inspection to which every farm must submit.
The certified organic label is a sign to consumers that the fruits or vegetables they are buying were grown in compliance with the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program, and that the farm complies with the rigorous standards that the government poses on any farming operation that seeks organic certification. It may also help consumers understand the justifiable reasons for which organic food products almost always cost more – at farmers markets or in grocery or specialty food stores. See sources below for more details.
Susan Klatz Beal is a full-time freelance writer and member of GardenComm – Garden Communicators International. She is a self-proclaimed plant geek who enjoys the thrill of growing everything from succulents and native plants to exotic and tropical plants, every type of houseplant in existence, and fruits and vegetables. Susan eagerly challenges herself to try to grow plants in every possible way, including container gardening, raised beds, traditional soil gardening, and hydroponics. When she’s not writing or playing with plants, you’ll find her obsessively looking for ways to bring more hummingbirds to her garden and patio.