January, 2003: Having trouble understanding
the National Organic Standards? If so, you’re not alone!
We’re here to help. We’re the newfarm.org answer
team. We have compiled a team of experienced organic farmers
and certification experts to answer your questions about the
standards, approved materials, certification process, labeling
requirements, and more.
The National Organic Standards (NOS) were developed by the
USDA to implement the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990
(OFPA). The NOS are based on recommendations of the National
Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was appointed by the
Secretary of Agriculture to provide advice to implement OFPA
and to review substances allowed in organic production and
As you may recall, the USDA issued the first proposed rule
in December, 1997. That proposed set of standards would have
allowed genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics,
re-feeding of animal by-products, and other practices long
prohibited in organic agriculture. That proposal received
275,603 comments, and was withdrawn.
The second proposed rule was issued in March, 2000. It was
much more consistent with existing organic standards than
the first proposed rule. It received about 40,000 comments,
and served as the basis for the “final rule”,
issued in December, 2000.
The final rule contains the National Organic Standards, complete
with an extensive list of definitions and the “National
List” of allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances.
It also contains labeling, certification, accreditation, enforcement,
and testing requirements. The final rule came into full effect
on October, 21, 2002. The text of the rule, along with policy
statements, program updates, a list of accredited certifying
agents, complaint procedures, and other related information
can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
Because the NOS are written as part of a legal regulation,
it is often hard to understand (even for lawyers). Sections
of the regulation are inter-linked to one another, meaning
that many parts of the rule may affect your operation. This
may not be readily apparent. The newfarm.org answer team is
here to help make sense of the regulation.
Any agricultural product technically can be produced using
organic methods. The NOS covers all agricultural products
labeled and sold as “organic” or “organically
produced”. The rule covers organic vegetable growers,
orchardists, livestock producers, ranchers, processors, and
handlers. Parts of the regulation even apply to retailers.
As an organic operator, it is good for you to understand the
requirements for other sectors, since these may affect your
While the National Organic Standards are relatively new,
organic standards and certification have existed in the United
States since the mid-1970’s, beginning with California
Certified Organic Farmers. As the markets for organic products
grew, so did the number of organic certification agencies.
Though the standards of the different agencies, and states
which defined “organic” through legislation, were
similar, there were differences. These differences sometimes
resulted in trade difficulties and disputes between regions
over whose standards were more “organic”.
OFPA was passed by Congress in 1990 to begin the process
of resolving the differences and establishing one set of national
standards. Those standards are now in place. All certifiers
who operate in the U.S., and all certifiers who certify products
sold as “organic” in the U.S., must follow the
NOS, and they must be accredited by the USDA to show that
they have the competence and freedom from conflict of interest
to certify organic products.
In simplified terms, the NOS require:
For crop farms –
• 3 years with no application of prohibited materials
(no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or GMOs) prior to certification;
• implementation of an Organic System Plan, with proactive
fertility systems; conservation measures; environmentally
sound manure, weed, disease, and pest management practices;
and soil building crop rotation systems;
• use of natural inputs and/or approved synthetic substances
on the National List;
• no use of prohibited substances while certified;
• no use of genetically engineered organisms, (GMOs)
defined in the rule as ”excluded methods”;
• no sewage sludge or irradiation;
• use of organic seeds, when commercially available;
• use of organic seedlings for annual crops;
• restrictions on use of raw manure and compost;
• maintenance of buffer zones, depending on risk of
• no residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5%
of the EPA tolerance.
For livestock operations –
• implementation of an Organic Livestock Plan;
• mandatory outdoor access;
• access to pasture for ruminants;
• no antibiotics, growth hormones, or GMOs;
• 100% organic feed and approved feed supplements; and
• organic management from last third of gestation or
2nd day after hatching.
For processing operations –
• no commingling or contamination of organic products
• implementation of an Organic Handling Plan;
• no use of GMOs or irradiation;
• proactive sanitation and facility pest management
• use of organic minor ingredients in “organic”
products, when commercially available; and
• use of approved label claims for “100% organic”,
“organic” (at least 95% organic ingredients),
“Made with organic ingredients” (at least 70%
organic ingredients) and proper use of the word “organic”
in ingredient list (less than 70% organic ingredients).
All operations producing and/or selling organic products must
keep records to verify compliance with the regulation. All
producers and handlers who sell over $5000/year in organic
products must be certified. (Producers and handlers who sell
under $5,000/year still have to follow the NOS - they just
don’t have to be certified.)
Though the National Organic Standards are similar to previous
organic standards, there are some significant differences,
and there are areas of controversy, confusion, and continued
clarification. Despite the level of detail in the NOS, some
interpretation is required for local variations and new conditions.
To help you better understand the regulation, the newfarm.org
answer team is comprised of persons closely associated with
the rationale BEHIND the rules. Having worked in the certification
sector, and having attended numerous NOSB meetings, answer
team members are in an excellent position to suggest knowledgeable
Members of the answer team come from California, Oregon,
Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New Jersey.
We have experts in materials review; inspection; certification;
and, most importantly, organic production. Rather than relying
on the word of one individual, having a team of persons from
different regions and with different areas of expertise provides
for broadminded, thoughtful responses to your questions.
We hope that you find the questions and answers provided
by the newfarm.org answer team helpful. If you have additional
questions, please do not hesitate to submit them to us.
James A. Riddle
Chair, newfarm.org answer team