Organic certification is a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, food processors, retailers and restaurants. Requirements vary from country to country, and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:
avoidance of most synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
use of farmland that has been free from chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products; undergoing periodic on-site inspections.
In some countries, certification is overseen by the government, and commercial use of the term organic is legally restricted. Certified organic producers are also subject to the same agricultural, food safety and other government regulations that apply to non-certified producers.
Purposes and Benefits of the Organic Inspection
The organic inspection doesn’t need to be scary, stressful, or onerous. The inspection process can be useful to producers of crops or livestock, and processors or handlers of agricultural products. The organic inspection is a unique opportunity because it involves the most face-to-face contact between the producer or handler and an inspector who works for the certifier.
Organic certifiers conduct annual inspections of all their clients (certified parties) to verify, through on-site review of actual activities and the corresponding records, that the clients are in compliance with the relevant organic standards. Every USDA-accredited certification agency must make annual inspections. Most inspections are scheduled with the client in advance; however, some inspections are unannounced. This publication will help you incorporate management practices that will keep you prepared for an inspection at any moment. Benefits of the inspection process for organic certification include the following.
Building consumer confidence in the meaning of the organic label
Fulfilling requirements to get or maintain organic certification
Improving farm record-keeping systems and keeping up-to-date records
Providing an opportunity to better understand organic standards
Getting updated information about allowed and prohibited materials
Learning about public educational opportunities or sources of information and technical assistance available through your certifier, Cooperative Extension, local farm organizations, or industry networks. (Please note that this is not part of the inspection, but an incidental benefit. The role of the inspector is discussed below.)
The steps that help you prepare for your inspection for organic certification will also help you maintain healthy farming systems and viable business practices.
Organic certification addresses a growing worldwide demand for organic food. It is intended to assure quality and prevent fraud, and to promote commerce. While such certification was not necessary in the early days of the organic movement, when small farmers would sell their produce directly at farmers’ markets, as organics have grown in popularity, more and more consumers are purchasing organic food through traditional channels, such as supermarkets. As such, consumers must rely on third-partyregulatory certification.
For organic producers, certification identifies suppliers of products approved for use in certified operations. For consumers, “certified organic” serves as a product assurance, similar to “low fat”, “100% whole wheat”, or “no artificial preservatives”.
Certification is essentially aimed at regulating and facilitating the sale of organic products to consumers. Individual certification bodies have their own service marks, which can act as branding to consumers—a certifier may promote the high consumer recognition value of its logo as a marketing advantage to producers. Most UK certification bodies operate organic standards that meet the UK government’s minimum requirements. Some certification bodies, such as the Soil Association, certify to higher standards.
The certification process
To certify a farm, the farmer is typically required to engage in a number of new activities, in addition to normal farming operations:
Study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
Compliance — farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
Documentation — extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
Planning — a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
Inspection — annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
Fee — an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400–$2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).
Record-keeping — written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.
In addition, short-notice or surprise inspections can be made, and specific tests (e.g. soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested.
For first-time farm certification, the soil must meet basic requirements of being free from use of prohibited substances (synthetic chemicals, etc) for a number of years. A conventional farm must adhere to organic standards for this period, often, two to three years. This is known as being in transition. Transitional crops are not considered fully organic.
Certification for operations other than farms is similar. The focus is on ingredients and other inputs, and processing and handling conditions. A transport company would be required to detail the use and maintenance of its vehicles, storage facilities, containers, and so forth. A restaurant would have its premises inspected and its suppliers verified
Certification & product labeling
In some countries, organic standards are formulated and overseen by the government. The United States, the European Union and Japan have comprehensive organic legislation, and the term “organic” may be used only by certified producers. Being able to put the word “organic” on a food product is a valuable marketing advantage in today’s consumer market, but does not guarantee the product is legitimately organic. Certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and make buying organics easy. However, the organic labeling made possible by certification itself usually requires explanation. In countries without organic laws, government guidelines may or may not exist, while certification is handled by non-profit organizations and private companies.
Internationally, equivalency negotiations are underway, and some agreements are already in place, to harmonize certification between countries, facilitating international trade. There are also international certification bodies, including members of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), and Ecocert. Where formal agreements do not exist between countries, organic product for export is often certified by agencies from the importing countries, who may establish permanent foreign offices for this purpose.
In the US, federal organic legislation defines three levels of organics. Products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled “100% organic”. Products with at least 95% organic ingredients can use the word “organic”. Both of these categories may also display the USDA organic seal. A third category, containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, can be labeled “made with organic ingredients”. In addition, products may also display the logo of the certification body that approved them. Products made with less than 70% organic ingredients can not advertise this information to consumers and can only mention this fact in the product’s ingredient statement. Similar percentages and labels apply in the EU.
In the US, the National Organic Program (NOP), was enacted as federal legislation in Oct. 2002. It restricts the use of the term “organic” to certified organic producers (excepting growers selling under $5,000 a year, who must still comply and submit to a records audit if requested, but do not have to formally apply). Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
One of the first organizations to carry out organic certification in North America was the California Certified Organic Farmers, founded in 1973.
In Canada, certification was implemented at the federal level on June 30, 2009. Mandatory certification is required for agricultural products represented as organic in import, export and inter-provincial trade, or that bear the federal organic logo. In Quebec, provincial legislation provides government oversight of organic certification within the province, through the Quebec Accreditation Board (Conseil D’Accréditation Du Québec).
EU countries acquired comprehensive organic legislation with the implementation of the EU-Eco-regulation 1992. Supervision of certification bodies is handled on the national level.
In March 2002 the European Commission issued a europeanwide label for organic food however for most of the countries it was not able to replace existing national product labels. It was relaunched in 2009 with a design competition for a new logo to be used throughout the EU from July 2010. The final logo will be chosen through a public vote online, which is open until the 31st of January 2010  .
In the United Kingdom, organic certification is handled by a number of organizations, regulated by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), of which the largest are the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers.
In Sweden, organic certification is handled by the organisation with members such as farmers, processors, trade and also consumer, environmental and animal welfare interests.
In Ireland, organic certification is available from the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association
In Greece, organic certification is available from eight (8) organizations approved by EU. The major of them are BIOHELLAS and the DIO (Greek: Οργανισμός Ελέγχου και Πιστοποίησης Βιολογικών Προϊόντων – ΔΗΩ)
In France, organic certification was introduced in 1985. It has established a green-white logo of “AB – agriculture biologique”. The certification for the AB label fulfills the EU regulations for organic food. The certification process is overseen a public institute (“Agence française pour le développement et la promotion de l’agriculture biologique” usually shortended to “Agence bio”) established in November 2001. The actual certification authorities include a number of different institutes like Aclave, Agrocert, Ecocert SA, Qualité France SA, Ulase, SGS ICS.
In Belgium, a similar process as in France is being used where certification of the “Biogarantie” label is overseen by the public “association sans but lucratif” (ASBL) administration. This administration does exist since 27. June 1921 and it was reformed on 2. May 2002 to take over the new responsibilities of the label certification.
In Germany the national label was introduced in September 2001 following in the footsteps of the political campaign of “Agrarwende” (agricultural major shift) led by minister Renate Künast of the Greens party. This campaign was started after the mad-cow disease epidemic in 2000. The effects on farming are still challenged by other political parties. The national “Bio”-label in its hexagon green-black-white shape has gained wide popularity – in 2007 there were 2431 companies having certified 41708 products. The popularity of the label is extending to neighbouring countries like Austria, Switzerland and France.
In the German-speaking countries there have been older non-government organizations that had issued labels for organic food long before the advent of the EU organic food regulations. Their labels are still used widely as they significantly exceed the requirements of the EU regulations. An organic food label like “demeter” from Demeter International has been in use since 1928 and this label is still regarded as providing the highest standards for organic food in the world. Other active NGOs include Biokreis, Bioland, Biopark, Ecoland, Ecovin, Gäa e.V. and Naturland.
The farmland converted to produce certified organic food has seen a signification evolution in the EU15 rising from 1.8% in 1998 to 4.1% in 2005. For the current EU25 however the statistics do report an overall percentage of just 1.5% as of 2005. Other than the percentage of farmland the statistics show a much larger percentage of organic food in terms of turnover reaching 10% in France and 14% in Germany. Vegetables, fruits, milk and eggs have reached a percentage of 21% to be certified organic food in France. Non-EU countries have widely adopted the European certification regulations for organic food, to increase export chances to EU countries.
In Other Countries
In Japan, the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) was fully implemented as law in April, 2001. This was revised in November 2005 and all JAS certifiers were required to be re-accredited by the Ministry of Agriculture.
In Australia, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) is the controlling body for organic certification because there are no domestic standards for organic produce within Australia. Currently the government only becomes involved with organic certification at export, meaning AQIS is the default certification agency. Although there is no system for monitoring the labeling of organic produce sold within Australia, this primarily affects the retail public. Commercial buyers for whom this is an issue have simply taken the export system as a de facto standard and are willing to pay premium prices for produce from growers certified under the National schemes. As of 2006, there are seven AQIS-approved certifying organisations authorised to issue Organic Produce Certificates, and in 2004 there were 2345 certified operators. The largest importer of Australia’s organic produce (by weight) is Japan (33.59%), followed by the UK (17.51%), France (10.51%), and New Zealand (10.21%). The largest certifier of organic products is Australian Certified Organic, which is a subsidiary of Biological Farmers Australia, the largest organic farmers’ collective in the country.
In India, APEDA regulates the certification of organic products as per National Standards for Organic Production. “The NPOP standards for production and accreditation system have been recognized by European Commission and Switzerland as equivalent to their country standards. Similarly, USDA has recognized NPOP conformity assessment procedures of accreditation as equivalent to that of US. With these recognitions, Indian organic products duly certified by the accredited certification bodies of India are accepted by the importing countries.”
In China, the China Green Food Development Center awards two Standards: A and AA; while the former standard does permit some use of synthetic agricultural chemicals, the latter is more stringent.
Organic Certification Requirements
- Product identification and composition for all organic products produced (This must include current formulations, recipes, or batch sheets that support the percentage of organic ingredients in your product label claim—”100% Organic,” “Organic,” or “Made with organic….”)
- Facility map(s) showing the facility perimeter and buildings, all equipment, and areas used for receiving, raw material storage, processing, packaging, finished product storage, and shipping
- Production flow chart(s) that includes equipment used in each step or stage of the process and shows the flow of products through the facility from receiving of raw ingredients to shipping of the final product
- Documentation of sources of ingredients and processing aids
- Organic ingredients and processing aids: You must have on file a copy of the organic certificate from the supplier of any organic ingredient or processing aid, showing that it is certified to NOP standards, along with the level of certification that supports the label claim you intend to make For example, if your label makes the claim of 100% organic, all ingredients and processing aids must be documented to be certified as 100% organic.
- Non-organic agricultural ingredients and processing aids: You must provide documentation affirming that each specific ingredient a) is not commercially available as organic, b) does not contain prohibited inputs and has not been produced using prohibited methods (genetic engineering), c) has not been treated with ionizing radiation, and d) is not produced from a crop grown using sewage sludge.
- Non-agricultural ingredients: All nonagricultural ingredients must be listed on and consistent with the annotations of the National List (NOP Sections 205.605 through 205.606).
- Pest management Documentation for preventative practices, procedures, maps, logs, service reports, and incident records must be provided. Whether your pest management is done in-house or by a contracted pest control company, you must document what materials are used, if any, including maintaining product labels or MSDS pages on file. If prohibited materials (substances not on the National List) are used inside your facility, be prepared to show documentation of how organic products and materials are protected from contamination during pest control applications.
- SanitationYou will need documentation of standard operating procedures, equipment cleaning, equipment purge logs, and residue testing. Residue test procedures must be appropriate for the sanitation materials used. For example, if chlorine is used as a sanitizer, a chlorine test strip with sensitivity in the low (0-10 ppm) range must be used to show that the level of chlorine remaining is below 4 ppm, the level allowed in NOP section 205.606. Materials that are not listed as allowed sanitizers are now allowed, but if they are used, they must be completely removed before running organic products. For example, if acid or alkaline sanitizers are used, a pH test with a neutral result (or one that matches the plain water used in the facility) indicates that the sanitizer material has been washed off. Quaternary ammonia is not listed and not allowed, and therefore must be completely removed, such that there are no detectable residues, and residues do not contaminate organic products. Records must be maintained for each area or production line where organic processing occurs, showing how organic products and packaging materials are protected from contamination by conventional product residues and/or sanitation chemicals on food contact surfaces.
- Water You will need documentation of source, use, additives, and any applicable tests results.
- Culinary steam Provide a list of all boiler additives, MSDS pages for all additives, results from any carryover tests, and explain how the organic product is protected from boiler additive contamination.
- Organic integrity (organic critical control points)
You will need documentation of systems and procedures to prevent commingling and/or contamination of organic ingredients and products throughout all steps of processing.
- Audit trail/audit control documents
The organic recordkeeping system must accomplish two objectives: 1) trace products as certified organic from the raw ingredients to final sale (for verification of sources and/or sample recall from final destination); and 2) verify the input–output balance of organic ingredients and organic products, including current inventory. Be prepared to supply samples of paperwork during the inspection to track ingredients to finished products for any item and for any time that may be randomly selected for an input/output audit.
- Labels and labeling
You will need finished product labels (retail and wholesale labels on printed packaging, boxes, etc.), with the proper placement of the phrase identifying the certifier, relative size of USDA and certifier logos, lot number, and market destination, as applicable.
- Off-site storage/contracted facilities
If your operation uses off-site, contracted warehousing or outside contractors for handling of ingredients or finished products, you will need to provide information about how the off-site facility is used. Depending on what they do, such facilities may need to be certified to operate under the certificate of the entity for whom they provide custom services, or provide an affidavit that they meet the criteria of an excluded operation (see NOP Section 205.101 for definitions and requirements).