Answers to Your Questions: MAY

Developed by The New Farm® Answer Team

MAY 1, 2003: Here are some of the certification-related questions you’ve asked us recently, along with responses from our answer team.

1. Does the "manure" from earthworms have to meet the same criteria as other

No. According to the NOSB Compost Task Force, earthworm castings are “finely divided organic material produced non-thermophilically due to interactions between aerobic microorganisms and earthworms, as organic material passes through the earthworm gut.” It makes no sense that earthworm castings would have to meet the same requirements as manure. Otherwise, it would be a violation of the regulation to have earthworms defecating in your soil less than 120 days prior to harvest of a crop for human consumption if the crop contacts the soil.

The manure requirements at §205.203.c.1 do not apply to earthworm castings, as the language specifically says “animal and plant materials include: 1) Raw animal manure, which must be composted.” The NOP definition of manure describes “excreta from livestock”, which does not apply to invertebrates such as earthworms that are either native or used in soil building processes, and not raised “for food or in the production of food.”

2. Does compost made using earthworm castings have to meet the NOP compost temperature requirements?

Earthworm castings are often not composted and since they are not classified as “manure” there is no requirement for composting them prior to application. If earthworm castings are composted using animal manures as feedstock in a product sold or claimed to be "compost", then there would need to be verification that the NOP composting requirements have been fulfilled.

3. Do strawberry plants need to be organic?

Planting stock for perennial crops can come from conventional sources if managed organically for 12 months prior to organic harvest. (§205.204.a.4). Planting stock (“any plant or plant tissue other than annual seedlings”, including garlic bulbs, potato tubers, etc.) used for annual crops may be from non-organic sources if organic sources are documented as not commercially available. ( §205.204.a.1).When strawberries are grown as an annual crop, the planting stock is considered the same as other annual planting stock, and can be from non-organic sources if no organic stock (tips, plugs or crowns) is commercially available. This is a common production system in Florida and California and is becoming more common elsewhere.

4. Is there a certain level of GMO contamination that will still allow a crop to be designated as organic? My understanding is that there is, since it is becoming increasingly unavoidable, but I have not found anything in black and white to confirm this. Does section 205.671 “Exclusion from organic sale” mean that <5% GMO contents detected would still be considered organic? It doesn’t specifically mention GMO contamination. Here's what the section says:

205.671 Exclusion from organic sale
“When residue testing detects prohibited substances at levels that are greater than 5% of the EPA’s tolerance for the specific residue detected or unavoidable residual environmental contamination, the agricultural product must not be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced.”

The regulation does not establish a tolerance or threshold level for GMO contamination. Section 205.671, as referenced in your question, applies only to contaminants for which there is an established EPA tolerance (organic products must contain less than 5% of these specific thresholds of pesticide residues) or for “unavoidable residual environmental contamination” which is described in the preamble as the FDA action level for poisonous or deleterious substances in food or animal feed (Fed Reg 80631). FDA action levels are set for illegal pesticides or heavy metal contamination. §205.671 does not apply to "excluded methods" (GMOs) because there are no tolerances set by EPA or FDA, since GMOs are not considered “contaminants” by these agencies.

Section 205.670(b) directs certifying agents to collect samples for residue analysis "when there is reason to believe that the agricultural input or product has come into contact with a prohibited substance or has been produced using excluded methods." The preamble clarifies further (Fed Reg 80632) that; “As was also discussed in the proposed rule, these regulations do not establish a "zero tolerance" standard. As with other substances not approved for use in organic production systems, a positive detection of a product of excluded methods would trigger an investigation by the certifying agent to determine if a violation of organic production or handling standards occurred. The presence of a detectable residue alone does not necessarily indicate use of a product of excluded methods that would constitute a violation of the standards.”

Despite the fact that the regulation does not set a tolerance level for GMO contamination, many buyers set their own tolerance levels for high risk crops. Anyone growing corn, soybeans, cotton, or canola should know the buyer's requirements, and follow protocols to protect the crop from GMO contamination.

5. Can animals in organic systems be vaccinated, for example, with C&D, tetanus, etc.?

Yes, vaccinations are allowed under the organic livestock regulations. Vaccines are listed as allowed materials on the National List (§205.603.a.14). Genetically engineered vaccines are not allowed unless listed on the National List (none are approved so far).

6. Is there a difference between natural and synthetic compounds in how they are evaluated for possible use in organic production?

Yes, natural (nonsynthetic) compounds are allowed in organic production, unless specifically prohibited. Synthetic compounds are prohibited unless specifically allowed. Here is the Rule’s definition of synthetic: "A substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes."

Both natural and synthetic substances are evaluated using criteria contained in the Organic Foods Production Act, which is inserted below:

6518(m) Evaluation.
In evaluating substances considered for inclusion in the proposed National List or proposed amendment to the National List, the Board shall consider

(1) the potential of such substances for detrimental chemical interactions with other materials used in organic farming systems;

(2) the toxicity and mode of action of the substance and of its breakdown products or any contaminants, and their persistence and areas of concentration in the environment;

(3) the probability of environmental contamination during manufacture, use, misuse or disposal of such substance;

(4) the effect of the substance on human health;

(5) the effects of the substance on biological and chemical interactions in the agroecosystem, including the physiological effects of the substance on soil organisms (including the salt index and solubility of the soil), crops and livestock;

(6) the alternatives to using the substance in terms of practices or other available materials; and

(7) its compatibility with a system of sustainable agriculture.

6517(c)(2) Prohibition on the use of Specific Natural Substances.
The National List may prohibit the use of specific natural substances in an organic farming or handling operation that are otherwise allowed under this chapter only if

(A) the Secretary determines, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, that the use of such substances
(i) would be harmful to human health or the environment; and
(ii) is inconsistent with organic farming or handling, and the purposes of this chapter;

7. USDA accredited certifiers are allowed and required to accept the certification work of other USDA accredited and approved certifiers. But consider this scenario:

  • Certifier A and Certifier B are both USDA and EU accredited.
  • Certifier A has a processor client who uses an ingredient certified by Certifier B. However, B's client is certified only to EU standards as he feels he does not have enough US business to justify paying for the additional certification cost.
  • Certifier B is willing and able, based on current farm plans and inspection reports, to verify that B does indeed meet any and all additional requirements of the USDA.

Can Certifier A allow his client to use the ingredients from Certifier B's EU certified client which meets the USDA requirements but is not under USDA certificate?

The ingredients would need to be covered by a certificate issued by a USDA (NOP) accredited certification agency. Either certifier A or B, since they are NOP accredited, could review all documents, and, if the documents verify NOP compliance, issue an NOP certificate.

Certification Archives

For a full list of your questions and our answers as well as some highlighted articles, visit our certification archives or click on the desired category below.


    1. General
    2. Certification
    3. Crop Production
    4. Livestock Production
    5. Handling
    6. Labeling
    7. Allowed and Prohibited Substances