The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) facilitates the strategic marketing of U.S. agricultural products in domestic and international markets. AMS supports producers, traders, and consumers of U.S. food and fiber products, including organic products, by ensuring fair trading practices and promoting a competitive and efficient marketplace.
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The AMS National Organic Program (NOP) is responsible for developing and implementing the USDA organic regulations. In this role, the NOP accredits and oversees the work of third-party organizations that certify the more than 27,000 organic farms and businesses in the U.S. and around the world. The NOP also enforces the organic standards and protects the integrity of the USDA organic seal from farm to market.
Organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations. This means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife.
In addition, organic crop production prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering; and organic livestock production prohibits the use of antibiotics, synthetic medicines, and hormones. Non-agricultural ingredients used in organic processed products must be approved by the National Organic Standards Board, a Federal Advisory Committee whose 15 members are appointed by the Secretary and represent the full range of organic stakeholders. Only products that have been certified as meeting the USDA requirements for organic production and handling may carry the USDA organic seal or be labeled as organic.
Organic certification verifies that farms or handling facilities located anywhere in the world comply with the USDA organic regulations and allows operations to sell, label, and represent products as organic. The organic regulations describe the specific standards required for use of the word “organic” or the USDA organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products.
Who certifies farms or businesses? Farms or handling facilities can be certified by private, foreign, or state entities that are accredited by USDA. Called certifiers, these entities ensure that organic products meet all USDA organic standards.
Certifiers are a vital part of a complete and scalable system that supports organic integrity. In addition to conducting investigations when necessary, they inspect their certified organic operations at least once a year.
What products can be certified? The USDA organic regulations currently recognize four categories of organic products:
- Crops: a plant that is grown to be harvested as food, livestock feed, fiber, or used to add nutrients to the field;
- Livestock: animals that can be used for food or in the production of food, fiber, or feed;
- Processed products: items that have been handled and packaged (i.e. chopped carrots) or combined, processed, and packaged (i.e. soup); and
- Wild crops: plants from a growing site that are not cultivated.
How does an operation become certified and maintain certification? To become certified, an operation must apply to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. First, the producer or handler adopts organic practices and submits an application and fees to the certifying agent. This application includes a detailed description of the operation to be certified; a history of substances applied to land during the previous three years; a list of the products to be grown, raised, or processed as organic; and a written Organic System Plan describing the practices and substances to be used.
Once the certifier determines that the application contains sufficient information, an inspector conducts a thorough onsite inspection of the applicant’s operation.
Following the inspection, the certifier reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant complies with the USDA organic regulations. After any problems (or non-compliances) are corrected, the operation receives its organic certificate from the certifier.
After becoming certified, the organic producer or handler provides annual updates to its certifier. Every year, each certified organic operation must be inspected by its certifier to verify that the operation is following its Organic System Plan. This process continues as long as the operation is certified.
Certifying agents also have the authority to conduct unannounced inspections of their certified operations. In fact, the NOP instructs certifiers to conduct unannounced inspections of at least 5 percent of their total certified operations annually. The NOP conducts audits of all certifying agents to ensure that they are properly implementing the organic regulations.