Answers to your organic certification questions has assembled a team of inspectors and certifiers to answer any questions you have about the new organic standards. Here we explain some background and basics about the ruling.

By Jim Riddle, Organic Inspector, Chair of the New Farm® Answer Team

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January, 2003: Having trouble understanding the National Organic Standards? If so, you’re not alone! We’re here to help. We’re the 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 handling.

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 That proposal received 275,603 comments, and was withdrawn.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

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 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 operation.

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 contamination; and
• 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 during processing;
• implementation of an Organic Handling Plan;
• no use of GMOs or irradiation;
• proactive sanitation and facility pest management practices;
• 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 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 solutions.

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 answer team helpful. If you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to submit them to us.


James A. Riddle
Chair, answer team