Certification is key to the National Organic Program. It assures that organic growers and handlers are, in fact, adhering to the organic regulations and it allows you to sell, label, and represent your products as organic.
Unless you are an excluded or exempt operator (see below), everyone who wants to sell agricultural products with the term "organic" on the front label must be certified. This includes producers of organic livestock, food and fiber crops, and "handlers" of organic products. Any organic operation in violation of the USDA organic regulations is subject to enforcement actions, which can include financial penalties or suspension/revocation of their organic certificate.
The USDA organic regulations recognize and certify 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).
- Wild crops: Plants from a growing site that is not cultivated.
Any land used to produce raw organic commodities must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years. Until the full 36-month transition period is met you may not sell, label, or represent the product as “organic.” USDA provides technical and financial assistance during the transition period through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP).
Organic producers in certain states are also eligible to receive certification cost assistance through a USDA funded Cost Share program.
The National Organic Program regulations provide some exceptions to certification depending the size and type of the operation. Although certification is not required, these types of operations still must comply with certain parts of the regulation. Specifically they must prevent commingling and contamination of organic products with prohibited substances, keep records that show products marketed as organic have been correctly handled from production through delivery to the customer, and comply with specific labeling requirements. The following operations do not need to be certified:
- Small organic farms and businesses (gross agricultural income from organic sales does not exceed $5,000 per year)
- Some brokers, distributors, and traders provided they do not re-package or process the products
- Retail food establishments
- An operation that only handles products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients
- An operation that only identified organic ingredients on the product’s information panel
Although certification is not required for these types of operations, they may pursue voluntary organic certification.