Organic Certification Process

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The following article summarizes the process an organic producer must understand, prepare for and follow to meet USDA National Organic Standards. Organic certification provides third-party consumers confirmation that the products they are consuming were produced and handled in accordance with organic standards. The certification also allows growers, producers and handlers to place a USDA certified organic seal on marketed agricultural products.

The basic requirements for organic certification are:
1. The product is grown and/or produced in a system that promotes and emphasizes plant and animal health.
2. Pests are “handled” in a preventive manner.
3. Allowed materials are used judiciously.
4. The product is protected from contamination during the entire process culminating in the final sale.

These requirements apply to all products marketed as “organic” ranging from raw agricultural commodity to multi-ingredient, processed product. Consumers will notice that labels vary with claims such as “100% Organic”, “Organic” (95-100%) or “Made with Organic Ingredients” (at least 70%). Rescheck web 

Organic certifiers perform inspections annually through on-site review during production activity and a thorough inspection of records. Inspections can be advance notice, but on occasion, inspections are unannounced. Benefits of organic certification are: 1. Promoting the organic label, bolstering the meaning of it and building consumer confidence. 2. Maintaining or fulfilling organic certification requirements and provide an opportunity to better understand organic standards to include allowed and prohibited materials. 3. Learning about public educational opportunities or sources of information and technical assistance available through your certifier, cooperative extension, local farm organizations, or industry networks (not part of the inspection, but a benefit).

The following steps are required if a producer or handler is to achieve USDA organic certification:

Step 1: Select a certifier.
The selection of a certifier is actually done by the producer or handler. The producer will make the selection and request an application package. USDA accredited certification agencies (ACA) are listed at the following website: www.ams.usda.gov/nop/CertifyingAgents/Accredited.html

Certifiers can be private (non-profit or for-profit) or governmental. It is important to chose a certifier wisely as some are more organized than others. All should certify using the same USDA standards, but some are capable of certifying to a higher/different standard, such as International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM), European Union (EU), Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS), Conseil des appellations agroalimentaires du Québec (CAAQ), Biodynamic, GAP, Kosher, or Fair Trade. Consider personal interests and marketing needs when selecting a certifier.

Step 2: Submit an organic systems plan (OSP) application.
The OSP consists of details and relevant information concerning the plan for organic production. The producer or handler will use the certifier’s forms and guidelines and attach any requested documentation, licensing agreement or fee. The OSP, when dealing with crop production, may include land use history, crop rotation plans, soil improvement plans, material inputs used, pest management plans, and measures to maintain organic integrity. Many more elements of information may be required by the certifier.

Step 3: Certifier Review of OSP.
The certifier will then review the OSP and accompanying documentation. The certifier will assess completeness and the producer or handler’s ability to consistently operate a compliant operation in accordance with NOP guidelines. Once the certifier reviews the OSP and determines requirements can be met, a qualified organic inspector will be tasked for an on-site inspection.

Step 4: Organic Inspection.
A person knowledgeable about the operation must be present at the initial and annual inspection. The inspection should occur when production or handling can be observed in action. Preparation checklists are available on the Internet. While conducting the on-site inspection, the inspector will also review records for verification that the OSP and operation are aligned. Once the inspection is complete, the inspector will conduct an exit interview to ensure his/her observations are complete and accurate. The inspector will only report observations and is not responsible for the certification decision.

Step 5: Certifier review of the inspection report.
The certifier will review the report, determine eligibility for organic certification and notify the applicant of the final decision in writing. Requirements for initial or continuing certification are also included in the correspondence. If operations are found to have significant non-compliance issues, revocation of certification is a possibility.

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