What is organic certification?

David McNew/Getty Images A shopper in Tustin, California walks by certified organic products at Whole Foods Market
David McNew/Getty Images

­Organic foods and other products are popping up everywhere. A tour through an average grocery store will reveal wide selections of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meats and seafood that are organic. Specialty shops might yield organic clothing and cosmetics. Organic products are fairly easy to spot. Usually, there is a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal on the label or some form of copy boasting that the product is 100 percent organic or made with organic ingredients. But what's behind the label? How do products become certified organic?

In 2002, the USDA established standards for organic products. Meeting these standards is the core of the organic certification process -- a process producers must complete before labeling a product as organic. The standards apply regardless of whether the product is from the United States or another country. USDA-approved state, non-profit and private agencies called certifiers enforce standards.


The USDA's standards require that farmers produce organic foods with methods that maximize soil health, conserve water and reduce air pollution. Certified organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones.

But farmers aren't the only ones who must comply with organic standards. Companies that process and handle organic foods and products must meet government rules to become certified. This makes the entire process from planting, to processing, to delivering certified organic. Restaurants and supermarkets that serve and sell organic products are not required to have organic certification.

In this article, we'll explore the organic certification process, organic labels and the associated costs and criticisms.


Organic Standards

Scott Olson/Getty Images OrganicVille, a line of low-carb salad dressings, prominently displays the USDA certified organic seal on their labels.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Protection Act in an effort to establish a national standard for the production and marketing of organic products. Then in 2002, the USDA implemented the national organic certification program under the National Organic Program (NOP). The program was shaped by the input and recommendations of a board of farmers, handlers, scientists, environmentalists, retailers, certifying agents and public and consumer interest groups. The NOP's regulations span multiple areas, ranging from agency accreditation, production and handling standards, certification, labeling and rules on imports.

Although the government upholds organic standards, it doesn't actually certify organic farmers and handling operations. Third-party certifying agents, accredited by the USDA, perform organic certifications and inspections.


An agency or agent must meet certain accreditation standards to become a USDA-accredited certifier. The USDA maintains these requirements to ensure consistency among their certifiers. Parties interested in becoming accredited certifying agents must submit an application and have their place of business evaluated. The USDA evaluates the application and inspection report and, once approved, the accreditation lasts for five years. There are currently about 50 certifying agencies in the United States.

Certifying agencies then evaluate the production and handling standards of potential organic businesses. These standards regulate growing methods, processing and handling standards for organic products.

NOP regulations require that all natural (non-synthetic) substances be used in organic production and handling. Any synthetic substances, radiation and genetically modified breeds are prohibited. Farmers must use organic seeds and may not use banned chemicals and substances on their fields for at least three years before they may call a crop organic. Any animals used for meat, milk, eggs or other animal products must be fed 100 percent organic food, have access to the outdoors and may not be given hormones or antibiotics. Certified organic handlers must only use organic ingredients and prevent organic and non-organic products from coming into contact with each other.

In the next section, we'll learn about organic certification.­­


The Organic Certification Process

A farmer cleans vegetables at Atlas Farm, a certified organic farm
John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images A farmer cleans vegetables at Atlas Farm, a certified organic farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts. The produce will be sold at a farmers' market in Boston.
John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Farmers, producers or handlers applying for USDA-organic certification begin by finding a certifying agency. Applicants are not required to use the closest agency and will find that cost often varies between agencies. Once the applicant chooses an accredited agency, the individual or business submits an application packet and organic system plan.

Organic system plans provide a detailed record of all operational practices. They document methods of farming or handling, the use of substances like fertilizers and pesticides, invoices, breeding records, ledgers, tax returns and purchase orders.


After the certifying agency reviews the application packet and the organic system plan, it inspects the farm or facility. Inspectors review fields, equipment, buildings, neighboring land, records of management practices, seed sources, harvesting methods, storage, composting, transportation and sales practices. The inspector and applicant complete and sign an affidavit before submitting it to the certifier.

A certifying agent or committee reviews the application, organic system plan and the results of the initial inspection.

There are three outcomes to the review process. If approved, the applicant can begin marketing products as organic and may use the USDA's organic seal. An applicant with minor discrepancies may be flagged for non-compliance and must address issues or provide additional information before certification. If an applicant has violated standards that cannot be addressed in the short-term -- say they haven't upheld organic farming practices for the required three years -- the application will be denied.

The certification process can take as few as six weeks with some agencies offering costly expedited certification services. However, there is no way to expedite the transition period that is part of the process of becoming organic.

Certification does not expire -- it continues until the farmer or producer no longer wants to be certified, or the agency suspends or revokes the certification. Inspections are done annually, regardless of whether there has been a complaint against practices. If certified organic farmers or handlers produce fraudulent labels, false records or neglect other organic standards, they may face civil fines of up to $11,000.

In the next section, we'll look at the costs associated with organic certification and discuss potential problems with the government's standards and labeling.


Organic Certification Costs and Criticisms

Students at University of California, Berkeley prepare organic salads
Students at University of California, Berkeley prepare organic salads from the dining commons. UC Berkeley became the first American college campus to offer an organic salad bar prepared by a certified organic kitchen.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Organic certification can be expensive. However, the cost is not meant to be prohibitive. When the certification process was first introduced, the NOP estimated certification would cost, on average, $750 per farm. In practice, the actual cost varies based on the certifying agency, the size of the farm and other factors like administrative fees. The USDA lists all accredited certifying agencies on its Web site, and most agencies list their policies, forms, fees and annual costs on their own Web sites.

In a study of certification costs across eleven certification agencies, initial costs averaged $579, $1,414, $3,623, and $33,276 for farms with incomes of $30,000, $200,000, $800,000, and $10,000,000, respectively. For small farms, costs ranged from $90 to $1,290. For medium farms, certification cost anywhere from $155 to $3,300. Large farms paid about $200 to $12,300. And super-farms paid $575 to $150,300 for organic certification [source: UF/IFAS].


Through the Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, The NOP offers financial assistance in 15 states. The program allows reimbursement of up to 75 percent of the cost of certification with a maximum reimbursement of $500.

Some farmers and handlers are exempt from certification. Smalls farms that produce less than $5,000 worth of organic food a year are not required to be certified. However, if they want to market their products as organic, they still must follow the USDA's standards. Farms cannot use the official USDA seal unless they are, in fact, certified.

Handlers who do not actually process products are exempt from certification as are handlers who only work with products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients. Handlers who choose not to label their products as organic, or who use the word organic on the side panel only, do not require certification.

A United States Department of Agriculture organic label.
A United States Department of Agriculture organic label.
David McNew/Getty Images

But even with standards in place, this isn't a perfect system. Debates over standards and labeling have been brewing for several years. Consumer groups and adherents of the early organic movement's focus on small-scale sustainable environmentalism believe that big businesses are lowering the standards of what it means to be organic.

The rules are indeed changing. A 2006 amendment created a list of allowable artificial ingredients in organic products. Advocacy groups are concerned such additions could continue. However, industry lobbyists maintain that big organic farms allow the industry to meet the increasing demand for organic products.

Critics also point out problems with organic labeling practices. Undefined terms like natural, free-range of cage-free make it confusing for shoppers trying to choose an ethically or environmentally-sound product. Currently, only the organic label has federal standards backing up its quality.

Future organic policy and legislation might enhance and expand available financial assistance through the certification cost-share program, help fund educational, outreach and grant programs and tackle the hurdles of exporting and importing organic products.

To learn more about organic certification and organic farming, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF): Organic Certification, Trade Association, Education & Outreach, Political Advocacy. http://www.ccof.org/
  • Canfield, Clarke. "Organic beer sales grow, Anheuser-Busch enters market." Associated Press. 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/local/maine/articles/2006/07/09/ ­organic_beer_sales_grow_anheuser_busch_enters_market/
  • "Clearing up the confusion about organic wine." Organic Consumers Association.
  • Hoye, Sue. "Eating out organic, a new challenge for natural food connoisseurs." CNN.com In-Depth Specials. 2000.
  • Kuepper, George. "Organic Farm Certification & the National Organic Program." ATTRA: National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2002.
  • "Labeling Alcohol Beverage Containers." Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA. 2002.
  • "Labeling Packaged Products Under the National Organic Program." Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA. 2003.
  • McRandle, P.W. "Organic beer." National Geographic, the Green Guide. 2006.
  • National Organic Program, USDA. http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/indexIE.htm
  • "Notice of Agricultural Management Assistance Organic Certification Cost Share Program." Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA. 2006.
  • Organic Certifiers Database. The New Farm, Farmer-to-Farmer Know-How from The Rodale Institute. 2007.
  • "U.S. Organic Standards." Organic Trade Association. 2006.
  • Warner, Melanie. "What is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say." New York Times. 2005.