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Organic 101: Five Steps to Organic Certification

Posted by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
Reece Latron uses a tractor to carry baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA. While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung
Reece Latron uses a tractor to carry baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA. While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung
This is the eighth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The USDA organic label is backed by a certification system that verifies farmers or handling facilities located anywhere in the world comply with the USDA Organic Regulations. Certification entails five steps:

STEP 1: Develop an organic system plan. The organic system plan is the foundation of the organic certification process. Created by the producer or handler seeking certification, it details how an operation will comply with the regulations based on its unique characteristics.

While plans differ based on operation type and needs, they address all practices of the farming or handling systems, such as tilling, grazing, harvesting, storing and transporting. They also specify approved substances used during the growing or handling process, monitoring practices for organic systems, recordkeeping systems, and barriers that prevent commingling with nonorganic products or contact with prohibited substances.

STEP 2: Implement the organic system plan. Have it reviewed by a certifying agent. Organic operations are certified by private, foreign or State entities that have been accredited by USDA. These entities are called certifying agents and are located throughout the United States and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that organic products meet all organic standards.

STEP 3: Receive inspection. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected on site by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections differ in scope depending on the farm or facility. For example, for crops they include inspection of fields, soil conditions, crop health, approaches to management of weeds and other crop pests, water systems, storage areas and equipment. For livestock, they include inspection of feed production and purchase records, feed rations, animal living conditions, preventative health management practices (e.g., vaccinations), health records, and the number and condition of animals present on the farm. At a handling or processing facility, an inspector evaluates the receiving, processing, and storage areas used for organic ingredients and finished products.

STEP 4: Have a certifying agent review the inspection report. The inspector presents findings to the certifying agent following observation of practices on the farm or facility as they compare to the organic system plan. In addition to the inspection points mentioned above, the inspector also presents an assessment of the risk of contamination from prohibited materials and might even take soil, tissue or product samples as needed. The inspector also analyzes potential hazards and critical control points and makes sure procedures to prevent contamination are adequate.  From there all findings are presented the certifying agent for review.

STEP 5: Receive a decision from the certifier. If an operation complies with the rules, the certifying agent issues an organic certificate listing products that can be sold as organic from that operation. The organic farm or facility continues to update its plan as it modifies its practices, and an inspection is done at least once a year to maintain certification. (See “What is Organic Certification?”)

Owner Amy Hicks harvesting organic greens at her farm. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected onsite by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections occur annually to maintain certification. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung
Owner Amy Hicks harvesting organic greens at her farm. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected onsite by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections occur annually to maintain certification. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. Earlier this year, USDA featured how Bob and Kathy Stolzfus are extending their vegetable-growing season in Florence, Miss.; veterans are training for organic careers in San Diego, Calif.; and Sarahlee Lawrence is implementing conservation measures on her food and flower operation in central Oregon.

In light of the continued growth of organic, USDA’s new Organic Literacy Initiative helps prospective farmers, ranchers and processors learn about not only how to be certified but also how to access related USDA programs. It features a toolkit that helps farmers and businesses answer the question, "Is organic an option for me?" A look at the resource guide will also help current and prospective organic customers access various USDA programs that support organic agriculture.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Comments

LS NARAYAN RAO
Apr 26, 2020

How to get USDA organic certification for moringa leaf powder

Sheila
May 29, 2020

I have been growing organic on my third acre property for many years. I am interested in getting certified so I can have the option to sell the produce. I need some guidance on basic s of the process. Where do I start?

Joe
Jun 08, 2020

Hi my name is Joe and am from Addis Ababa Ethiopia, I manage a family coffee shope in Merkato which is the biggest market in Africa. We rost and use our own coffee to make the drinks in our cafe.

Due to customers request we are now expanding to a rostery. We want to rost fresh organic beans and share them with the world.

Plan includes various tourist destination branches, an online shop, etc...

The reason why am writing you today is we want to be organic certified(USDA organic) and if that is an option for our company or not ???

Ben Weaver
Jun 08, 2020

@Joe - thank you for your interest in becoming certified organic to the USDA Organic standards. Our webpage provides a step-by-step guide: How to Become Certified Organic web page. We recommend starting off by finding a certifier in your location through the Organic Integrity Database.

Hemanta Kalita
Jun 27, 2020

Want an organic certificate. What is the process?

Ben Weaver
Jun 29, 2020

@Hemanta Kalita - thank you for your interest in becoming certified organic to the USDA Organic standards. Our webpage provides a step-by-step guide: How to Become Certified Organic web page. We recommend starting off by finding a certifier in your location through the Organic Integrity Database.

Rishad Ismail
Aug 11, 2020

Hi

We are retailers of Moringa Powder, our supplier have obtained USDA Organic certification. We would like to know if we could use manufacturers certification on retail pack. We only do retail packing without adding any ingredients.

Thank you

Bashir Yusuf Abubakar
Aug 12, 2020

Can I have my Farm certified here in Nigeria?

Manish Bende
Sep 10, 2020

I want to know the process to get the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Certification, criteria, registration fee, taxes all in details.

regards,

Ben Weaver
Sep 10, 2020

@Manish Bende - thank you for your interest in becoming certified organic to the USDA Organic standards. Our webpage provides a step-by-step guide: How to Become Certified Organic web page. We recommend starting off by finding a certifier in your location through the Organic Integrity Database.

Sunnie
Sep 18, 2020

I'm trying to figure out what would be needed for mushrooms to be certified organic if the sawdust they grow on may not be organic. Do you have any guiding information?

Ben Weaver
Sep 22, 2020

@Sunnie - thank you for your comment. Mushrooms can be certified under the crop standards. Operations should contact a certifier for more information.

Helen Giles
Sep 30, 2020

We have less than a dozen pecan trees on a hog farm. Neither chemicals, including sprays (of any kind) nor fertilizer is used on the pecan crop. We don't even use irrigation. We let God take care of that! Since we have so few pecan trees, would it be worthwhile to have the nuts certified organic?

Ben Weaver
Oct 01, 2020

@Helen Giles - thank you for your comment. In order to label any product as organic, the farmers and handlers must follow the USDA organic regulations. If your aforementioned pecan operation has less than $5,000 in sales then you may be exempt from certification and can sell your product as organic provided you are following the regulations. However, as an exempt operation, you would not be allowed to use the organic seal. To be sure, we recommend contacting an organic certifier in your area.

Adam
Oct 08, 2020

I am in the process of producing an organic skin care line. Is it possible to get the certificate for my skin care line?

Ben Weaver
Oct 13, 2020

@Adam - thank you for your comment. USDA Organic certification may apply to cosmetics. Information on what products USDA oversees can be found on the Organic Cosmetic Fact Sheet (PDF, 74 KB). Please contact a USDA organic certifier in your area to work with you on the process.