What Does “Certified Organic” Really Mean?

by Lisa Engelbert

As organic products become more and more available in grocery stores and other retail outlets, there seems to be some confusion on what the “certified organic” label really means.


Prior to October of 2002, there were numerous organic certification agencies operating in the United States.  They each had their own set of standards, and while they were similar, there were some very distinct differences as well.  Since the National Organic Program was officially implemented in October of 2002, any agency certifying farms and processors as organic in the United States (and abroad if selling organic product in the United States) is required to be accredited by the USDA as a certification agency and to certify operations to a uniform set of standards.


There are very strict regulations that organic farmers and processors must follow if they plan to label their products as “organic.”  Any farm or processor with gross organic sales of $5000 or more per year is legally required to be certified by a USDA-Accredited certification agency.  Operations with less than $5000 in gross organic sales are not legally required to be certified, but must be following the same regulations, and must be able to present documentation to show what their practices are upon request.  Any operation found to be willfully violating the National Organic Standards is subject to a fine of up to $11,000 per sale of fraudulent product.


Organic farmers must submit an Organic System Plan (also known as an Organic Farm Plan) to an accredited certifier.  This plan must include information about all aspects of the farm, including a three-year history of all fields, what crops are grown on adjoining fields, maps of all fields, an animal list (if certifying livestock), any products in use or planned for use, seed information and fertilizer (usually manure or compost) application records.  Organic farmers must update their information and pay a certification fee each year, and must have at least one inspection each year.  Organic farmers and processors are subject to unannounced spot inspections to verify compliance at any time.


For land to be eligible for organic certification, it must not have had any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides applied for the three years immediately prior to the harvest of an organic crop.  Treated seeds are considered a prohibited substance in organic production, so the use of treated seeds will disqualify a field from organic certification for a full three years.  Organic seeds are required to grow an organic crop unless they are not commercially available, in which case untreated, non-GMO conventional seeds are allowed to be used.  Organic farmers are required to build or maintain soil structure and must show a crop rotation that meets this requirement.  Practices must be in place to prevent water contamination and soil erosion.


Farmers raising organic livestock have additional documentation requirments.  There must be an animal list that shows all animals on the farm, including an ID# and birth date for each.  If animals are being raised for organic meat, they must be managed 100% organically from the last third of their mother’s gestation period and must be fed 100% certified organic feed from birth.  Poultry must be managed organically from at least the second day of life to be eligible to produce organic eggs or meat.  Organic animals cannot be totally confined and must have access to the outdoors all year.  Ruminant animals (cows, goats, sheep, etc) must be on pasture during the grazing season.  A detailed healthcare log must be maintained for any healthcare products used, even natural ones.  If a prohibited product (antibiotic, hormone, or other synthetic healthcare product) is used to save an animal’s life, the animal must be removed from the farm and will never be considered organic again.


There is a one-time, whole herd transition allowed for conventional dairy animals.  To be eligible to produce organic milk, dairy animals must be managed 100% organically (including feed, pasture and healthcare treatments) for a full year before certification is granted.  During the one-year transition period, the milk produced by the transitioning herd is sold into the conventional market.  Once the transition begins, no more conventional animals may be brought to the farm to transition.  When a farm completes transition and becomes certified for dairy production, all animals, whether farm raised or purchased, must be managed organically from the last third of their mother’s gestation period, the same as slaughter stock animals.  Purchased animals must come with a valid certification certificate and other tracking documents.


Processors making organic products must submit an Organic Handling Plan that shows a diagram of their facility, what pest control products are used and how often, and what cleaning products are used in the facility.  A product profile for each product being made is submitted and must show every ingredient, the source of the ingredient, who it is certified by (along with a certification certificate for each), any processing aids that may be used, and the process for making the product.  If the facility also processes non-organic product, there must be a clear plan to prevent co-mingling of organic and non-organic product.  This is usually accomplished by processing organic products first, when all equipment is clean.


There are three labeling categories for organic food, “100% Organic” (may contain no ingredients other than salt and water that are not certified organic), “Organic” (must be at least 95% certified organic ingredients other than salt and water), and “Made With Organic” (must be at least 70% organic ingredients).  All three categories must list the certification agency certifying the product on the label.   The “100% Organic” and “Organic” categories may also display the “USDA Organic” logo.


Organic farms and processors are following very strict standards.  Their practices are verified at least once a year with an on-farm inspection and a full review of their practices.  Unannounced spot inspections can occur at any time.  Operations found to be in noncompliance with the standards are given time to correct a minor problem, or if it is a willful violation or a non-correctable, major violation, their certification is suspended or revoked.  Once an organic operation has their certification revoked, they are not eligible to apply for certification for five years.


For more information on organic regulations,
please visit the NOFA NY, Inc., website at www.nofany.org
and the National Organic Program website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop