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 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 That proposal received 275,603 comments, and was withdrawn.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 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 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;
• no residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of the
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
For processing operations –
• no commingling or contamination of organic products during
• 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 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 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
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