Tuesday, June 1, 2010

FAQs about Organic Certification

One of the most frequent questions I get into my office is about organic certification.  Essentially, to be certified organic you will need to have your land free from synthetic chemicals for 3 years and you must follow the National Organic Standards Board set out by USDA. 

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) is a nonprofit organization located in Wisconsin that provides information and education about organic farming.  Over the next couple of days I will be blogging from one of their publication "Guidebook for Organic Certification."  To get started I selected a few of the FAQs that are listed on pages 3-5 that I feel are the questions I asked most.

Q. What are the benefits of organic agriculture agriculture and certification?  There are numerous benefits of organic production and certification. They include:
  • Access to the organic marketplace, where there is the potential to receive a premium price for your product. 
  • Strong growth in market demand for all types of organic products.
  • Research studies show added health benefits from consuming organic food.
  • Improved soil and water quality through enhanced management and reduction of synthetic chemicals.
  • Reduced handling of potentially hazardous and expensive agricultural chemicals.
  • Increased profits due to reduced off-farm inputs.
  • Yearly documentation of production activities provides a historical reference and contributes to the development of effective farm plans.
  • The 2008 USDA Census of Organic Agriculture illustrated the majority of organic farmers were satisfied with their production methods, intended to produce the same or more organic products and were optimistic about the future.
Q. Why do I need to get certified to sell organic products?
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. The OFPA required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. The OFPA and the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, (named the National Organic Standards, or NOS), require that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms or handling operations that have received certification by a State or private entity who have been accredited by the USDA to certify farmers or processors as organic. You are not allowed to use the word “organic,” “organically grown,” “organic raised” or any other phrase in reference to your agricultural production unless you comply with the National Organic Program or fall under an exemption.
Q. What kinds of products does the National Organic Program cover?
  •  “All production or handling operations (or parts of such) that produces or handles crops, livestock, livestock products or other agricultural products that are intended to be sold, labeled or represented as “organic” must meet all requirements of the NOP (unless exempt).” (§205.100(a)). The NOP was set up to govern agricultural products. Things that are not agriculturally produced (such as mined products - for example salt or lime) are not covered by the organic law. They may be labeled as “approved for organic production.” 
  •  Operations that sell less than $5,000 per year of organically labeled products do not need to be certified annually, but still need to follow all aspects of the regulation, including the record keeping.
  • Specialty crops such as mushrooms, sprouts, greenhouse production, maple syrup, pet foods and personal care products must meet all of the regulations and may have additional guidelines suggested by individual certification agencies.
Q. What are the penalties for misusing the term “organic ”?
Any operation that knowingly sells or labels a product as “organic” that is not in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Standards may be subject to a civil penalty of up to $11,000 per violation. In addition, if an operation has been found to commit fraud under the organic label, they may lose their right to sell organic products for up to five years.Retail stores and restaurants, while excluded from the requirement of certification to handle and sell organic products, may voluntarily choose to be certified.
Q. Can non-certified farmers use the word “organic”?
The only non-certified farmers that are allowed to use the term “organic” are those whose gross agricultural income from organic products is $5,000 or less annually. These farmers must still comply with all NOP requirements, from soil building, the use of organic seed, and approved fertility, to pest and disease management materials, and record keeping, but they are exempt from going through the certification process. Products from exempt operations may not be used as organic ingredients in organically labeled processed products produced by another operation, or used as organic feed or bedding for organic livestock.

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