What Does USDA Organic Certification Mean & How to Get Certified

In 2019, organic food sales reached a staggering $50 billion. As the public becomes more health conscious and mindful of the food they eat, demand for organic products will only continue to rise.

But it’s not enough to just say that you offer organic produce. For consumers to trust your word, you must be certified, and your products will need to carry the USDA Organic Seal.

How Do I Get My Farm Certified Organic?

USDA Organic

In order to get your farm certified organic, your farm must first be eligible. If you qualify, you will then need to go through the certification process.

Foods that are certified organic must be grown and processed in a way that meets federal guidelines related to:

  • Pest and weed control
  • Soil quality
  • Animal husbandry practices
  • The use of additives

Farms that meet organic standards will use natural substances along with mechanical and biologically based methods as much as possible.

To become certified, your farm must meet stringent requirements.

The organic food system is one of the most closely monitored and regulated in the country, but if you really want to label your food as organic, you must become USDA certified.

If you’re interested in organic certification and have questions about your eligibility, contact an organic certifying agent that’s accredited by the National Organic Program, or NOP. Take your time when choosing an agent. This is the person who help you plan, perform inspections and provide your license for using the organic certification.

If you’re a producer selling less than $5,000 per year in organic foods, you are exempt from certification. However, you will still need to comply with USDA’s organic standards if you want to label your products as organic. Also, if you choose not to get certification, you may not put the USDA organic seal on your food.

USDA Organic Certification Requirements

In order to qualify for organic certification, your farm or food operation must meet a number of requirements.

#1 – Organic Produce

In order for produce to be labeled as certified organic, it must be grown in soil that hasn’t been treated with prohibited substances in the last three years.

These substances include most synthetic:

  • Pesticides
  • Fertilizers
  • Sewage sludge
  • Irradiation
  • Genetic engineering

Some natural substances are also prohibited under organic certification, including:

  • Strychnine
  • Arsenic

While some synthetics are permitted for pest control, the number is extremely limited. Only 25 synthetics can be used in organic farming compared to 900 in conventional growing practices.

Soil health is a key focus of the organic farming system. Farming operations that wish to use the organic label must maintain or improve both soil and water quality. At the same time, they must also conserve woodlands, wetlands and wildlife.

Other requirements include:

  • Creating buffers between your organic farm and nearby conventional farms.
  • Manure can only be used when it meets stringent guidelines related to composting time and temperatures to kill pathogens.
  • No use of artificial preservatives, flavors or colors.
  • Must comply with FDA, state, federal and international food safety standards.

If your farm currently grows conventional produce, your fields must first undergo a three-year transition period. During this transition period, you must grow crops using organic methods, but you cannot label any produce grown in these fields as organic until the three-year transition period is up.

In addition to these requirements, your farm will also undergo certification audits (announced and unannounced) by independent inspectors every year. These inspections ensure that all products with the USDA Certified Organic label are meeting the program’s stringent requirements.

#2 – Organic Meat

Meat labeled as organic must also meet stringent requirements. Livestock raised to organic standards must be:

  • Free of antibiotics and hormones
  • Fed organic feed and forage
  • Raised in a way that supports their natural behaviors (e.g. grazing on pasture)

#3 – Organic Processed Foods

Processed foods with multiple ingredients must also meet additional requirements in order to be labeled as organic. These include:

  • No artificial colors, preservatives or flavors
  • Ingredients must be organic (a few exceptions apply)

The exceptions to this second rule include some approved ingredients that are not agricultural, such as baking soda, enzymes for yogurt and pectin for fruit preserves.

#3 – Foods Labeled as “Made with Organic”

Processed foods may be labeled as “made with organic [ingredient]” if the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients. Other rules and restrictions apply. These products cannot bear the USDA organic seal.

#4 – No GMOs

All certified organic products must be free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. No produce can be grown using GMOs, and products can’t be handled using GMOs.

All organic farmers and producers must work with their certifiers to incorporate preventative measures to buffer their fields from GMO contamination.

Keep in mind that certifying agents audit and review all ingredients – not just produce and agricultural products – to make sure they are free from GMOs. This includes yeast, baking soda, vitamins and dairy cultures.

Who Creates The USDA Organic Standards?

The National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB, provides input on standards for processing, producing and handling organic products. The board consists of 15 volunteers from the organic community, and they serve the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Members include:

  • 4 owners or operators of organic farms
  • 3 experts in resource conservation and environmental protection
  • 3 individuals representing consumer or public interest groups
  • 2 owners or operators of organic handling operations
  • 1 owner or operator of a retail establishment focused on organic products
  • 1 USDA accredited certifying agent
  • 1 expert in ecology, toxicology and biochemistry

The USDA Certification Process

Becoming USDA organic certified is a five-step process that works to ensure that your products meet all of the standards to be considered organic. The USDA performs a rigorous certification process that does include an annual review and inspection process.

If you add ingredients or change from organic to conventional ingredients, you risk losing your certification.

Operations that are seeking to be certified organic and operate outside of the United States will have to go through a slightly different process to become certified organic.

Five-Step Process for US-based Operations to Become Certified USDA Organic

  • Adopt organic business practices and then select an agent for USDA-accredited certifying. An application, including all fees, must be submitted to the agent chosen.
  • Wait for the agent to review the application and verify that your business’ operation complies with all of the current organic regulations set by the USDA.
  • An on-site inspection will follow and be conducted by an inspector.
  • The inspector’s report and your application will now be completely reviewed by the certifying agent to determine if the applicant, or their business, meets all of the USDA regulations to be considered certified USDA organic.
  • If all of the requirements are met, the agent will issue your business an organic certificate.

Maintaining your certification requires that you pass an annual inspection, similar to your original inspection, that will thoroughly review your products to ensure that they’re all organic.

Process for International-based Operations to Become Certified USDA Organic

Importing organics into the United States requires your business to meet all of the USDA organic regulations. The process requires that your operations are certified by one of the following:

  • USDA organic regulations, which require authorized organizations around the world to certify businesses and farms to ensure that they meet the strict USDA regulations for being certified organic.
  • Authorized international standards, which are trade partners with the United States and other countries and have strict regulations on being certified organic. Arrangements currently exist between the US and the following: Canada, European Union, Japan, Republic of Korea and Switzerland.

How Much Does USDA Organic Certification Cost?

The costs involved with becoming certified organic vary greatly, depending on the following:

  • Size of the operation
  • Complexity of the operation
  • Type of operation
  • Certifying agent

A general range for the cost of certification is from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars. You have a right to ask the certifier about the fee structure and billing requirements to have your operation certified organic.

Fees will include the following:

  • Application
  • Annual renewal
  • Assessment
  • Annual production or sales
  • Inspection

Eligible operations can join the USDA Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which will reimburse certain organizations up to 75% of the cost to become certified. You will need to be certified before applying for one of these programs.

USDA organic certification can help you sell more products and reach a broader market. The certification process is straightforward and requires an annual renewal to verify that your operations continue to follow organic certification requirements.