Before 1990 there was no federal regulation of the organic food industry. Therefore, there was a lot of confusion in the marketplace as to what was truly organic. In 1990 the Organic Food Production Act was promulgated which allowed for standardization of the industry. The first draft of this act allowed for the use of GMO, irradiation, hormones and antibiotics in organic food production. However based on an overwhelming public response against it during the public commenting process of the rule-making, the USDA went back to the drawing board and re-crafted a rule that reflects what we accept as organic today, which excludes GMO, irradiation, hormones and antibiotics. Regulations for this act came into effect in 2002. According to the regulations, organic production is “a production system that is managed…to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity” (7 CFR Part 205.2). Responsibility for this regulation falls under the jurisdiction of USDA-AMS. The agency regulates and enforce organic standards under the National Organic Program (NOP) by accrediting certification bodies (local and foreign) that are responsible for inspecting and auditing organic farms and food facilities. Both the facility and products are certified as organic under the NOP.

What Can be Certified?

There are  four certified organic categories, each of which has its own set of certification requirements. Violators are subject to compliance and enforcement actions which may include loss of certification and financial penalties. The categories include:

  1. Conventional crops e.g. wheat, corn, pasture
  2. Wild crops e.g. mushrooms, berries
  3. Livestock e.g. cattle, pigs, poultry, milk and eggs
  4. Processed and multi-ingredient products e.g. juices, breads, cheese and yogurt
USDA organic seal


Benefits of Organic Certification 

  1. Allows the use of the USDA organic seal and organic claim
  2. Verifies that farmers meet national organic standards
  3. Increases consumer confidence
  4. Lower pesticide residues
  5. Reduced exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  6. Supports the health of the environment
  7. Provide more economic opportunities for farmers by allowing premium prices for products


The following facilities are exempt from the requirement to become certified, however they may voluntarily do so. Exempt facilities cannot say “organic” on their label or use the USDA organic seal. They also cannot sell products for use in certified organic products. Additionally, where applicable, they must prevent co-mingling of non-organic with organic products and must keep records for up to three years. These exempt establishments include:

  1. Small organic farmers and businesses grossing $5000 annually in sale of foods grown organically
  2. Retail food establishments that handle but do not process organic agricultural foods
  3. Distributors that handle organic foods that remain in closed containers
  4. Handling operations that handles products containing less than 70 organic ingredients or that only identifies organic ingredients on the information panel

Certification Steps For Organic Farms

  1. Prepare your farm for organic farming: This must be done at least 3 years ahead of time by ceasing to use any prohibited substance on the farm. This is a “cleansing” period to transition the land over to organic. Of course if you can prove that no prohibited substance was used on the land over the past three years, you could jump right in. Otherwise you must wait the three years
  2. Implement organic farming: After three years of no prohibited substances, you can begin organic farming as you get ready for inspection and certification
  3. Select a certifying agent: Certifying agents are accredited by the USDA to conduct auditing and inspections to ensure that farms and handlers maintain standards according to the NOP. They may be certified to conduct auditing of conventional crops, wild crops, livestock or processed food or all/combination of these. Make sure that the one you are choosing is certified in your area and have experience that aligns with what you are doing. Note that their fee structures are different so you may want to determine their charge before you commit to using any one.
  4. Submit an application to the certifying agent: The agent will supply you with the form required for application. The application will seek to determine if you are ready for inspection. Information provided must demonstrate that you are following procedures or have plans in place to meet all NOP criteria.
  5. Certifying agent reviews the application: The review will determine if there are any major barriers to certification that should be addressed before the inspection. The certifying agent will initiate an inspection if there are no major barriers
  6. On-site Verification: The certifying agent will send an inspector to conduct on-site verification inspection to determine if you are practicing what you have on paper. Make sure that what you have on paper is what you are actually doing. Do not just write down what you think is ideal because the inspector will hold you accountable for all that you say you are doing. If there are inconsistencies this will delay your certification. At the end of the inspection, the inspector will conduct an exit interview to discuss his findings and any concerns that needs to be addressed. This is your opportunity to respond by explaining, clarifying, or correcting any misunderstandings. The inspector will consider your response as he prepares a final report to the certifying agent.
  7. Application review: The certifying agent reviews the application for compliance with the NOP and makes a decision. If there are non-conformances, the certifying agent will issue a notice of noncompliance outlining what needs to be corrected before certification. However, once all criteria are met, certification is granted. The certification is renewable each year.

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances

In general, organic production prohibits the use of synthetic substances and allow the use of natural substances. However there are instances where there are exceptions to this rule. The National List of Approved Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances identifies the synthetic substances that may be used and the natural substances that may not be used. It also identifies a limited number of non-organic ingredients that may be used in or on processed organic products.

General Requirements for Organic Farms

  1. No prohibited substances on land for 3 years prior harvest of both plants and animals
  2. Cannot use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides
  3. Seeds must be organic and untreated
  4. Cannot use GMO seeds or seedlings
  5. Animals used for meat, eggs and dairy may only eat grain that is 100% organic
  6. Animals cannot be the products of genetic engineering
  7. Cannot use growth hormones nor antibiotics
  8. Cannot use sewage sludge
  9. Time period of 120 days between application of raw manure on soil (90 days is the edible portion of the crop is in contact with the soil)
  10. Seeds or food cannot be treated with irradiation
  11. Crop pests, weeds and disease must be controlled by physical, mechanical and biological controls or,
  12. If these controls do not work, approved substances named on the National List may be used
  13. Animals must have access to the outdoors, including pasture access for ruminants
  14. No commingling of organic with non-organic products
  15. Protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances

General Requirements for Organic Food Processors

  1. Non-organic ingredients must be approved and on the National List
  2. Ingredient storage containers must be dedicated to organic, or document that containers are thoroughly cleaned before use
  3. Cleaning chemical must appear on the National List or completely rinsed away before organic production
  4. Pest management must be based on preventive practices such as exclusion, sanitation, removal of pest habitat, management of environmental factors, mechanical and physical lure/repellents
  5. In a “split operation” (farm and processing), adequate measures must be taken to prevent commingling and contamination of organic ingredients and final products

For information guide on USDA’s requirements for organic food processors, you may review Guide for Organic Processors.

Organic Labels

The following are labels that you may see on food products to denote organic. The first three can only be placed on products that are “Certified Organic”, while the last one may be used by exempt operations.

  1. “100% organic” means that the product contains only organically produced ingredients and processing aids, excluding water and salt.
  2. “Organic” means that the product contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). The remaining 5% consist of non-organic substances that appear on the National List.
  3. “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that the product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups may be listed on the principal display panel. For example, “soup made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots” or “soup made with organic vegetables”.
  4. “Less than 70% Organic Ingredients” means that the product may only display organic ingredients in the ingredients listing on the label, but cannot display them on the principal display panel.

Controversies with Organic Foods

  1. The term organic is misleading because it gives the consumer the impression that the product is nutritionally superiors and safer
  2. The program is a big financial rip-off to customers given that there are no big difference in quality or organic compared to conventional foods
  3. Organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2012)
  4. Organic and conventional meats generally have the same number of diseases-causing pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2012). Therefore, organic meats are not necessarily safer.
  5. Pesticides on conventional foods are within safe limits. There is not enough evidence that the difference in pesticides on organic foods will make a significant difference on health
  6. Organic produce has increased risk of mycotoxins since fungicides are not allowed and organic techniques are less adequate
  7. Organic foods develop more natural toxins from phenolic compounds to help protect the plant from diseases. These may have damaging effects on health just like the use of synthetic pesticides
  8. Organic farming is less efficient leading to lower yields. Therefore to produce the same volume as conventional foods, you need more input e.g. manure, water and land. Getting the same unit production leads to higher emissions (ammonia and nitrous oxide) and nitrogen leaching in the soil


  • Courtney Simons

    Dr. Courtney Simons has served as a food science researcher and educator for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Ph.D. in Cereal Science from North Dakota State University.