Growers who market less than $5,000 in organic products have the option of designating their products as “organic” instead of seeking USDA organic certification if they meet the requirements.
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Total organic product sales hit a new high of $43.3 billion in 2015, up 11 percent from 2014 and well over the food market’s growth of three percent. That growth is being led by fruits and vegetables, which grew by 10.5 percent from 2014. Such statistics, reported in the 2016 Organic Industry Survey (bit.ly/2lgPEuz) by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), may make produce growers start thinking that it’s time to jump on board this fast-moving train. But because there is a great deal of misperception surrounding organic foods and attributes of food safety and nutrition, it is important that any grower considering completely organic production understand exactly what organic is — and isn’t.

What organic is

The National Organic Program (NOP) was established under the auspices of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service in 2000 to develop and regulate national standards for organically produced agricultural products. USDA defines organic as “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods.” To be certified organic and carry the USDA Organic Seal on its product labels, operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances – as listed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

Additionally, organic products cannot have genetically modified organisms (GMOs); and must use natural rather than synthetic substances (such as pesticides), except those allowed on the National List; and adhere to strict restrictions on preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, and other additives or processing aids.

Organic regulations are designed to protect natural resources through the use of agricultural methods intended to preserve the environment. These include practices that help to maintain and improve fertility, soil structure and biodiversity; reduce erosion and environmental exposure to toxic materials; and fine-tune farming to local conditions and markets.

What organic isn’t

According to 2015 Mintel research, consumer perception that organic foods are healthier is their strongest selling point, with 72 percent of consumers purchasing organics for health and nutrition reasons.

What makes this most interesting is that the USDA organic label was never intended to denote safety or nutrition. In fact, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, at the time of the NOP adoption, explicitly stated that the organic label is a marketing tool, not a statement about food safety, quality or nutrition. That assertion has since been reiterated by the USDA numerous times, with its current NOP webpage specifically stating, “These standards assure consumers that products with the USDA organic seal meet consistent, uniform standards. Our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.

While this is not intended to devalue the integrity of an organic food — although some current studies are beginning to show that there may be some nutrition benefits of organic — it is important that it be understood both by the consumer and the grower to prevent the belief or marketing of such claims based on an organic label. Communicating the actual benefits of organic foods is critical, however, as the Mintel research also showed that 51 percent of those surveyed felt that labeling a product as organic is simply an excuse to charge more.

It is for just such reasons (and likely the fact that while organic sales have increased, consumer penetration has plateaued) that USDA has proposed an Organic Research, Promotion, and Information Order on which it is seeking comment (bit.ly/2k7FU9y). The program would establish a framework to pool resources to develop new organic markets, strengthen existing markets, and conduct research and promotion activities to raise consumer awareness of certified organic products in the marketplace, and to improve access to information and data across the organic sector. The program would be funded by fees paid by larger producers, handlers and importers based on sales values.

As a driver of this “Organic Check-off Program,” the OTA hails it in a press release, as “a significant step that will advance the growing organic sector and have important and long-lasting benefits for organic farmers, businesses and consumers alike.” Additionally, OTA CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha said, “This organic check-off will provide research and key tools to encourage more farmers to go organic and help all organic farmers be more successful. It will educate consumers in a positive way about what that organic seal really means.”

How to become organic certified

The next step is to become certified. USDA lists five basic steps to becoming organically certified with rights to use the organic label on product. However, those steps require precertification work and time.

One of the most critical aspects of the regulation is that produce can only be labeled organic if it is certified to have grown in soil that had no prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, applied for three years prior to harvest. Additionally, with the first step requiring the submission of an Organic System Plan (OSP), this detailed plan of how the operation will comply with the regulations needs to be developed.

The plan is to address practices such as tilling, grazing, harvesting, storing and transporting and specify approved substances used during growing or handling, monitoring practices for organic systems, recordkeeping systems and controls to prevent contact or commingling with non-organic produce and prohibited substances.

Once the grower has set the foundation for development of its OSP, it is ready to begin the process:

  1. The operation develops an OSP, selects an NOP-approved organic certifier who becomes responsible for ensuring that USDA organic products meet all organic standards and submits its application and fees.
  2. The certifier reviews the application to determine if the OSP appears to comply with USDA organic regulations. If approved, the operation implements the OSP and an onsite inspection is scheduled.
  3. The inspection is conducted to assess whether the operation complies or has the ability to comply with the regulations, verify that the OSP accurately reflects the operation’s activities and ensure that no prohibited substances have been applied.
  4. From a review of the inspection report, the certifier recommends one of four options: certification; certification with conditions for minor, non-violative issues; notice of noncompliance for correctable violations; or denial of certification with notice of noncompliance for non-correctable issues.
  5. If all is in compliance, the organic certificate is issued and remains in effect as long as the operation submits an annual updated OSP and fees and passes the annual inspection.

One exception to this is that producers who market less than $5,000 in organic products annually don’t have to be certified. While they must still comply with all organic requirements, their product cannot display the USDA organic seal or be used as organic ingredients in processed products produced by another operation. USDA also provides for four terms which can be used on a product label to designate that a product, or some of its ingredients, are organic:

  1. 100 percent organic – the product contains only organic ingredients. This includes most raw, unprocessed produce.
  2. Organic – the product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water); the other five percent may be non-organic agricultural products not commercially available as organic and/or nonagricultural products on the National List.
  3. Made with Organic (ingredient[s]/food group[s]) – the product must contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water), with the non-organic portion held to additional constraints.
  4. Organic [ingredient(s)] listing – specific organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70 percent organic contents (e.g., ingredients: water, barley, beans, organic tomatoes, salt).

Only the first two can use the organic seal and the fourth cannot include the word organic outside the ingredient list.