The Organic Certification Process
Farmers, producers or handlers applying for USDA-organic certification begin by finding a certifying agency. Applicants are not required to use the closest agency and will find that cost often varies between agencies. Once the applicant chooses an accredited agency, the individual or business submits an application packet and organic system plan.
Organic system plans provide a detailed record of all operational practices. They document methods of farming or handling, the use of substances like fertilizers and pesticides, invoices, breeding records, ledgers, tax returns and purchase orders.
After the certifying agency reviews the application packet and the organic system plan, it inspects the farm or facility. Inspectors review fields, equipment, buildings, neighboring land, records of management practices, seed sources, harvesting methods, storage, composting, transportation and sales practices. The inspector and applicant complete and sign an affidavit before submitting it to the certifier.
A certifying agent or committee reviews the application, organic system plan and the results of the initial inspection.
There are three outcomes to the review process. If approved, the applicant can begin marketing products as organic and may use the USDA’s organic seal. An applicant with minor discrepancies may be flagged for non-compliance and must address issues or provide additional information before certification. If an applicant has violated standards that cannot be addressed in the short-term — say they haven’t upheld organic farming practices for the required three years — the application will be denied.
The certification process can take as few as six weeks with some agencies offering costly expedited certification services. However, there is no way to expedite the transition period that is part of the process of becoming organic.
Certification does not expire — it continues until the farmer or producer no longer wants to be certified, or the agency suspends or revokes the certification. Inspections are done annually, regardless of whether there has been a complaint against practices. If certified organic farmers or handlers produce fraudulent labels, false records or neglect other organic standards, they may face civil fines of up to $11,000.
In the next section, we’ll look at the costs associated with organic certification and discuss potential problems with the government’s standards and labeling.
Organic Certification Costs and Criticisms
Organic certification can be expensive. However, the cost is not meant to be prohibitive. When the certification process was first introduced, the NOP estimated certification would cost, on average, $750 per farm. In practice, the actual cost varies based on the certifying agency, the size of the farm and other factors like administrative fees. The USDA lists all accredited certifying agencies on its Web site, and most agencies list their policies, forms, fees and annual costs on their own Web sites.
In a study of certification costs across eleven certification agencies, initial costs averaged $579, $1,414, $3,623, and $33,276 for farms with incomes of $30,000, $200,000, $800,000, and $10,000,000, respectively. For small farms, costs ranged from $90 to $1,290. For medium farms, certification cost anywhere from $155 to $3,300. Large farms paid about $200 to $12,300. And super-farms paid $575 to $150,300 for organic certification [source: UF/IFAS].
Through the Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, The NOP offers financial assistance in 15 states. The program allows reimbursement of up to 75 percent of the cost of certification with a maximum reimbursement of $500.
Some farmers and handlers are exempt from certification. Smalls farms that produce less than $5,000 worth of organic food a year are not required to be certified. However, if they want to market their products as organic, they still must follow the USDA’s standards. Farms cannot use the official USDA seal unless they are, in fact, certified.
Handlers who do not actually process products are exempt from certification as are handlers who only work with products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients. Handlers who choose not to label their products as organic, or who use the word organic on the side panel only, do not require certification.
But even with standards in place, this isn’t a perfect system. Debates over standards and labeling have been brewing for several years. Consumer groups and adherents of the early organic movement’s focus on small-scale sustainable environmentalism believe that big businesses are lowering the standards of what it means to be organic.
The rules are indeed changing. A 2006 amendment created a list of allowable artificial ingredients in organic products. Advocacy groups are concerned such additions could continue. However, industry lobbyists maintain that big organic farms allow the industry to meet the increasing demand for organic products.
Critics also point out problems with organic labeling practices. Undefined terms like natural, free-range of cage-free make it confusing for shoppers trying to choose an ethically or environmentally-sound product. Currently, only the organic label has federal standards backing up its quality.
Future organic policy and legislation might enhance and expand available financial assistance through the certification cost-share program, help fund educational, outreach and grant programs and tackle the hurdles of exporting and importing organic products.
The Organic Certification Process