FAQ

Glossary : National Organic Program Definitions

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Frequently Asked Questions

Consumers and Operators seeking certification

General

  • What is organic?
  • What is the National Organic Program (NOP)?
  • How do I access the NOP Regulations?
  • What kind of products can be certified as USDA Organic?

Organic Labeling

  • Are there regulations to control what products can be called “organic”?
  • How can I be sure a product promoted as “certified organic” meets the NOP Regulations?
  • Is there a seal or other identifying mark to show a product is certified organic?

Certification Process

  • As a producer, processor, or handler of organic products, is certification required for my business?
  • How do I get started?
  • What happens to my application and OSP when I send it to a certifying agency?
  • How much does certification cost and how are the fees structured?
  • How long does it take to become a certified operation?
  • Do I have to certify each year?
  • Is financial assistance available from the government to help offset the cost of certification?
  • Can I seek organic certification for part of my business or do I have to certify all of it?
  • What are the requirements for a farmer to become certified organic?
  • How long does the land have to go with no prohibited inputs before it can be certified as organic?
  • Can I acquire a farm or business that is currently certified and change the certification to my name?
  • Can livestock animals such as cattle, hogs, and poultry be certified as organically produced?
  • Are there different regulations for the various livestock products? Is milk the same as meat?


Certified Operations

          Certification and Inspections

  • Once my farm or business is certified organic, how often will the business be inspected?
  • How can I prepare for inspections?
  • Are certification agencies required to perform unannounced inspections?
  • As a certified organic operator selected for an unannounced inspection, will there be any additional costs?
  • What is residue testing? Will samples be taken from my organic products?
  • Can my farm or business be inspected at other times without any notification?
  • If there is a problem with my farm or business operation can my organic certification be revoked or suspended?
  • What kind of penalties can be expected for willful violation of the NOP organic regulations or fraudulent use of organic certificates?
  • Can I sell my certified organic operation and let the buyer keep the organic certification?
  • What if I need to change my OSP or deviate from it?

Organic Labeling

  • Do I need to get approval to change my product label?
  • If a product is certified organic, can logos representing other standards (such as “Fair Trade” or “Gluten Free”) appear on the product label?

Crops

  • What inputs can I use on my fields that are compliant with the NOP Regulations?
  • Once my farm is certified organic, can I process my farm’s production and sell it as organic?

Livestock

  • Do fertile eggs need to come from certified organic hens?
  • Are vaccinations allowed for livestock and poultry in certified organic operations?
  • Can I use antibiotics or hormones on my livestock for health and production reasons?
  • Are there regulations about how animals are sheltered or how much time they are allowed outside?
  • I understand that ruminant animals are required to spend time actively grazing pasture during grazing season. Is this correct?
  • What happens during seasons of drought?  If my pastures dry up, how can I meet the grazing requirement?

Processors and Handlers

  • If my operation currently manufactures food products that are not organic, can this same operation also manufacture certified organic products?
  • Can I process organic products with equipment used for non-organic foods?     
  • As a manufacturer, there are clearly proprietary aspects to my business. Are there safeguards in place to protect my information and documentation?
  • What can be done to control pests in and around my processing facilities?  

Consumers and Operations seeking certification

General

What is organic?

“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” (What is Organic? USDA National Organic Program).

A definition recognized internationally and proposed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) follows: "Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.” (Definition of Organic Agriculture, IFOAM Information Hub).

What is the National Organic Program (NOP)?

The National Organic Program (NOP) is part of the United States Department of Agriculture. The NOP regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation wishing to market products as organically produced.

How do I access the NOP Regulations?

The NOP maintains a website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. The website contains useful information including the NOP Regulations. The NOP also publishes a Program Handbook.

What kind of products can be certified as USDA Organic?

There are four product categories eligible for certification:

Crops – plants grown for food, feed, fiber, or used to return nutrients back to the soil.

Livestock – animals used for the production of food, fiber, and feed.

Processed products – agricultural products or ingredients that have been handled, combined, processed, and packaged.

Wild crops – plants from a site where there is no cultivation or agricultural management.

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Organic Labeling

Are there regulations to control what products can be called “organic”?

Yes. Certified organic products have to be produced, processed, and handled in accordance with the NOP Regulations.

How can I be sure a product promoted as “certified organic” meets the NOP Regulations?

Certified organic products packaged for sale include a statement on the label, “Certified Organic by (name of accredited certifying agency)”. Other products, commonly purchased without labels, may be verified by the certificate of NOP organic authenticity available from the business offering the product for sale.

Is there a seal or other identifying mark to show a product is certified organic?

Yes. The USDA Organic Seal (is available for use by certified organic operators but it is not required on packaging. The seal must meet strict guidelines about color, size and placement.

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 Certification Process

As a producer, processor or handler of organic products, is certification required for my business?

An operation that grosses over $5000 per year in sales and uses the word “organic” to market their product, without proper certification, is in violation of the NOP Regulations.  As part of NOP compliance efforts, such operators are subject to financial penalties and other enforcement actions.

Currently a farm or business that earns less than $5000 per year in sales can market the product of their operation as “organic” without being certified.  However, even though no connection with a certification agency is required the operation must follow all of the NOP regulations as if they were certified. Such operations may not label products as “certified organic” and may not use the USDA Organic Seal.

How do I get started?

 Ask us for your “Certification Packet”.  The certification packet will contain an application essential to building an Organic System Plan (OSP).  An OSP provides the details of how your business will operate and meet the NOP organic standards. Establishment of an OSP is the first step toward becoming certified.

The Ecocert ICO application and certification forms are available here.

What happens to my OSP and application when I send it to a certifying agency?

There are six basic steps in the certification process at Ecocert ICO:

1.)    Submit Application – Be sure to provide a complete OSP and include any required attachments.

2.)    Application Review – The application is assigned to a Certification Reviewer to verify the OSP is compliant and the client is prepared for inspection.

3.)    Inspection – An assigned inspector visits the operation to confirm the practices and procedures in the OSP are being followed. An Inspection Report is returned to the certifying agency.  

4.)    Inspection Report Review – A Certification Officer (CO) reviews the Inspection Report and issues a Determination Letter to the operator. The Determination Letter includes all findings, requirements, noncompliance concerns, or requests for more information.

5.)    Certification Status Notice - Once the inspection review and required documents show compliance with NOP regulation, you will receive an organic certificate from Ecocert ICO describing your activity and the certified products.

6.)    Continuation – Annually, you will update your Organic System Plan before the "Anniversary Date" (indicated in your certificate). The OSP review, inspection, inspection report review and certification status notification steps repeat each year.  Certification fees are due annually according to the fee schedule for the current year.

How much does certification cost and how are the fees structured?

At Ecocert ICO the cost includes on an inspection fee and a certification fee based on the number of acres or animals maintained at the farm. Fees for processors and handlers are based on the complexity of the operation and the number of organic products handled.

Other certifiers may have a sales-based ‘user-fee’ structure or may include membership fees in the cost of certification. The Ecocert ICO fee structure is available here.

How long does it take to become a certified operation?

The length of time from application to certification varies widely depending on the size, location, and type of operation seeking certification. For crop production on land previously treated with prohibited substances, a Transition Period of three (3) years is required.

Do I have to certify each year?

Yes, annual certification is required. This provides assurance that organic practices and procedures are maintained by the operator from year-to-year.

Is financial assistance available from the government to help offset the cost of certification?

Depending on where you live, financial assistance may be available. For more information please visit the NOP Financial Assistance page.

  • Cost Share Program

Certified clients in some States are eligible for reimbursement of 75%, up to $750 per year of your certification fees per certification scope.

For example: You may be certified for crops and livestock, each of which is considered a category (or scope) and would qualify to receive up to 75% reimbursement for each of those categories, not to exceed $750 per category.

For detailed information, including whether your State is included, deadlines and to apply for Cost Share reimbursement, please contact your state’s department of agriculture or click here for further information.

If you need assistance in obtaining this information, please contact our office and we would be happy to assist.

  • Grants

Each year, there may be grants available that may be of interest in sustainability or in the organic industry.

The following links are recommended sites to look for those that may be applicable to your operation.

USDA Rural Development http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rd_grants.html
SARE http://www.sare.org/Grants/Funded-Grants-in-Your-State
Grants government  http://www.grants.gov/

National Programs
Farm to School Grant Program
Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program
Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP)
RMA – Community Outreach and Assistance Partnerships
Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)
Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR)
Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program
Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Competitive Grants Program (OASDFR)
USDA Cooperative Development Grants
 
Regional or State-Administered Programs
Rural Development Enterprise Grants (RBEG)
Rural Business Opportunity Grants (RBOG)
 
Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG)

Please note: Cost Share and Grants may be affected by the current Farm Bill.

Can I seek organic certification for part of my business or do I have to certify all of it?

Split operations – those with both organic and non-organic production – are allowed under the NOP Regulations. However, the portion of business identified as organic must meet the criteria established by the NOP Regulations.

Can I acquire a farm or business that is currently certified and change the certification to my name?

No. Certification cannot be transferred. It belongs to both the land and the operator; a new operator or owner must apply for new certification. Typically, if the organic management system continues, the certification process can go smoothly and quickly.

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Certified operations

Certification and Inspections

Once my farm or business is certified organic how often will the business be inspected?

According to the NOP Regulations, inspections are required on an annual basis to ensure the operation is compliant. The NOP also encourages certifying agencies to conduct unannounced inspections throughout the year.

How can I prepare for inspections?

Consistent organic management practices and detailed recordkeeping will substantially help prepare the operator for inspection. Ecocert ICO has additional tips on preparing for inspection available here.

Are certification agencies required to perform unannounced inspections?

The NOP encourages certifying agents to conduct unannounced inspections of certified operations. Ecocert ICO may select operations for unannounced inspections based on both a risk analysis and random sampling. Our inspectors will have identification affiliating them with Ecocert ICO.

As a certified organic operator selected for an unannounced inspection, will there be any additional costs?

No. All costs for unannounced visits are born by the certification agency and cannot be passed on to the certified operator.

What is residue testing? Will samples be taken from my organic products?

In order to maintain organic integrity, the NOP requires certifying agencies to perform tests for pesticide, GMO, and antibiotic residues. Currently certifying agencies must select 5% of their clients for residue testing. The costs associated with residue testing cannot be passed on to clients. 

Can my farm or business be inspected at other times without any notification?

Yes. All certified organic operations as a condition of being certified, agree to allow unannounced inspections and the taking of samples as the certification agency deems necessary. However, the operator has the right to be present and available during the unannounced inspection. Inspection or testing cannot take place without your consent. Keep in mind, refusing access to inspectors can be considered grounds for suspension of organic certification.

If there is a problem with my farm or business operation can my organic certification be revoked or suspended?

Yes. A certifying agency has the right to revoke your certified organic status. This action is based on willful violation(s) of the NOP regulations or fraudulent use of organic certificates. Once a certification agency has revoked your organic status you may request mediation with your certifier as described in the NOP Regulations CFR 205.663. If the certification agency refuses mediation, the defendant may appeal a suspension pursuant to CFR 205.681 which outlines the appeals process.

What kind of penalties can be expected for willful violation of the NOP organic regulations or fraudulent use of organic certificates?

The civil penalty for knowingly labeling or selling a product as organic which does not meet the requirements of the NOP Regulations is a maximum of $11,000 per violation. Further, once certification is revoked, an operator is not permitted to sell products as organic unless reinstated by the USDA. The NOP website provides a public list of companies with revoked organic certificates.

Can I sell my certified organic operation and let the buyer keep the organic certification?

No, organic certification is not transferable. The new owner will need to apply for new certification even if a farm or business was previously certified.

What if I need to change my OSP or deviate from it?

Call the Ecocert ICO before you deviate from the OSP on file. We will help you address the needs of your operation. 

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Organic Labeling

Do I need to get approval to change my product label?

All changes to previously approved product labels must be submitted to Ecocert ICO. We will review the changes and verify compliance with the NOP Regulations.  The Ecocert ICO labeling procedures are available here.

If a product is certified organic, can logos representing other standards (such as “Fair Trade” or “Gluten Free”) appear on the product label?   

Yes. However if a logo is used on a certified organic label where the USDA Organic Seal is displayed, the USDA Organic Seal must be the most prominent.

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Crops

What are the requirements for a farmer to become certified organic?

Here is a brief summary of the requirements for the organic certification of crops:

  • The farmland must be free of prohibited materials, inputs and other conventional practices (as defined by the NOP Regulations) for three (3) years prior to harvest. This three year period is considered the Transition Period.
  • The farmer must agree to an annual inspection and related fee.
  • The farmer must maintain records of all significant activities for a minimum of three years. The inspector will audit all sales and purchases during the inspection.
  • The entire farm will be inspected for potential areas of contamination and adequate buffer zones.

How long does the land have to go with no prohibited inputs before it can be certified as organic?

The NOP Regulations stipulate a time period of three (3) years from the last application of prohibited substance or practice prior to harvest, before the land may be certified for organic production.  This is commonly called the Transition Period. 

What inputs can I use on my fields that are compliant with the NOP regulations?

Always confirm any off-farm inputs with your certification agency. Use of a prohibited product may jeopardize the organic status of your farmland. Most naturally occurring substances are allowed in organic farming; synthetics are generally not allowed.  The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, compiled by the National Organic Standards Board, identifies substances that may or may not be used in organic farming. The Organic Materials Review Institute and Washington State Department of Agriculture also provide lists of acceptable organic materials. 

Once my farm is certified organic, can I process my farm’s production and sell it as organic?

Yes. On-farm processing of organic products is allowed. All of the rules required for processors and handlers apply. If the processing changes the nature of the original product, additional certification as a Processor may be required.

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Livestock

Can livestock animals such as cattle, hogs, and poultry be certified as organically produced?

Yes. The standards for livestock are contained in the NOP Regulations.

Are there different regulations for the various livestock products? Is milk the same as meat?

Some regulations apply to all livestock production, such as zero tolerance for antibiotics and hormones in milk products, meat, or eggs. However there are many product specific regulations such as:

  • Milk must come from cows managed 100% organically for a minimum of one (1) year.
  • Animals used for meat products (such as beef, pork and lamb) must be born from an animal managed organically from the last trimester or last third of gestation.
  • All agriculturally sourced livestock feed must be 100% certified organic for animals intended for organic meat production.

Do fertile eggs need to come from certified organic hens?

No, neither the eggs nor chicks need to come from organic hens. However, poultry must be managed organically within 48 hours of hatching.

Are vaccinations allowed for livestock and poultry in certified organic operations?

 Yes. The NOP Regulations provide specifically for the use of vaccinations. However, some certification agencies prefer to see demonstrated need for a vaccine rather than widespread or unwarranted use of vaccinations as a general course of action.

Can I use antibiotics or hormones on my livestock for health and production reasons?

It depends. For meat production there is zero tolerance for antibiotics and hormones. However breeding stock may be treated differently because while being managed organically, their main purpose is to provide off-spring rather than meat. Dairy cows may be treated with oxytocin for parturition situations only.

Are there regulations about how animals are sheltered or how much time they are allowed outside?

Yes. All animals must be allowed access to the outdoors. The amount and quality of access is determined by the species and breed of the animal. Further information is available in the NOP Regulations under “Livestock Living Conditions".

I understand that ruminant animals are required to spend time actively grazing pasture during the grazing season. Is this correct?

Yes. Ruminant livestock are required to have an average of no less than 30% of their total Dry Matter Intake (DMI) from growing forages and pasture during the grazing season.

What happens during seasons of drought?  If my pastures dry up, how can I meet the grazing requirement?

In the past, the NOP has responded to drought and other severe weather conditions by modifying the requirement for specific regions. 

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Processors and Handlers

If my operation currently manufactures food products that are not organic, can this same operation also manufacture certified organic products?

Yes. The NOP Regulations allow a business to produce both organic and non-organic foods.  Operators must demonstrate the ability to maintain the organic integrity of the ingredients as they are processed and packaged into a final form. This is done through strict cleaning procedures and verifiable product management protocols. During organic inspections and audits, operators must prove consistent adherence to their established standards.   

Can I process organic products with equipment used for non-organic foods?

Yes, but processors must avoid commingling of the products.  The machine, equipment or line must be cleaned and purged (depending on the ingredient(s) and final product) according to established procedures between organic and non-organic processing. Such activity must be documented and verifiable.  Some processors set up dedicated organic equipment for simplicity and control.

As a manufacturer, there are clearly proprietary aspects to my business. Are there safeguards in place to protect my information and documentation?

In order to determine the label classification for the organic product, manufacturers must provide a detailed “Product Information Form” including ingredients and proportions. By law, all certification agencies and their employees are required to sign strict confidentiality agreements. 

What can be done to control pests in and around my processing facilities?

Successful pest management in certified organic facilities is based on the principles of exclusion and prevention. Synthetic pesticides require permission from the certification agency and should be the last resort.  Pesticide use is forbidden in the production areas.  Pesticide use in warehouse areas is permitted as long as the protocols clearly protect the organic integrity of the stored product.

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