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Organic Certification

Organic agriculture is an ecological production and management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.  It is based on minimal use of chemical inputs and management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.  The most followed principal of organic agriculture is to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural system.  Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues.  However, the methods used can minimize pollution from air, soil and water.  The main goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.

Farmers who plan to market their agricultural products as organic must be certified.  When organic products were marketed to consumers situated at long distances away from the producers, to confirm that the purchased good is organic a method called third-party certification was introduced.  A federal legislation, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, mandated the creation of the National Organic Program (NOP) that prescribes standards for organic farming, and accredits certifying agents.  The certification method acts as a means to the farmer to prove that the products are made through organic methods alone.

A third party certification means that producers, processors, and handlers are evaluated by an organic certifying agent to determine whether they conform to an established set of operating guidelines called organic standards.  The agriculturists who conform are certified by the agent.  They are allowed to use a logo, product statement, or certificate to document their product as certified organic.  By this method, the certifier vouches for the producer and assures buyers that the organic product was created following national organic standards.

An organic farmer should keep all records of practices and materials used in production.  They should allow annual inspection of the methods of farming and the products.  Prohibited substances such as synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, must not have been used on the land for three full years preceding harvest of the first organic crop.  There should be a three year transition period for land used in organic production unless records prove that no prohibited substances were used in or near the production area during the previous three years.  Evidence of all these should be produced before the certifying agent at the time of applying for organic certificate.

Organic livestock producers must manage and raise their livestock in ways that are not cruel and that take account of the animals’ natural behavior.  This includes providing pasture for ruminants and outdoor access for all livestock, and agreeing to restrictions on physical alterations.  This would also be checked by the certifying agency.

A producer should submit an application for organic certification along with the required fees.  All the questions in the application should be answered truthfully, and the required documented evidence should be appended along with the application.  History of the farm and map of the farm should be provided along with the application.  After review of the application by the certifier, the certifier can require additional documents from the producer.

When the application is complete, the organic certifier can assign an organic inspector to inspect all relevant areas of the farm.  The inspector looks for all indications that the producer is operating in compliance with organic standards.  The inspector produces an inspection affidavit during the inspection.  It should be signed by the producer and the inspector.  At the end of the inspection the inspector reviews all identified non-compliance issues with the producer.  The inspector submits a detailed report to the certifier on all findings after completion of the inspection.  However, inspectors can only record observations; they do not make decisions about certification.

The organic certifying agent or a certification committee studies the application and inspection report and gives a decision that can vary as approval for organic certification, request for additional information, notification of noncompliance, or denial of certification.  When a product is certified as organic it can be sealed by the official seal of the producer and also the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic seal.

In case of producers who market less than $5,000 worth of organic products they are exempted from being certified.  However, if they opt to be certified they have to move through the same procedures as any other organic producer.  Regarding such exempted producers, they cannot use the USDA’s official organic seal, the seal of a certifier, or otherwise claim that their production is certified.  However, they can label their products as organic.  The exempted producers cannot sell their products as ingredients for use in someone else’s certified organic product.  Retail stores can require exempted producers to sign an affidavit stating that they adhere to federal organic standards.

Inside Organic Certification