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.