USDA Organic Certification : US Agricultural Standards

The USDA Organic label, present on many food products, raises questions about its criteria and its meaning. USDA Organic certification is awarded in the United States for organic products. Here are the requirements, the benefits and the impact of this label on quality and the environment.

What is USDA Organic Certification ?

The USDA Organic certification symbolizes a guarantee of quality for food and agricultural products. It ensures their production according to the strict rules of the National Organic Program (NOP) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These strict criteria ensure the preservation of natural resources, the maintenance of biodiversity and respect for ecological balance.

This food certification mainly concerns organic products that exclude the use of synthetic ingredients, genetically modified organisms, irradiation treatments, as well as the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers. Nevertheless, the label admits certain exceptions, such as water and salt, or some non-organic ingredients specifically approved by the NOP.

In addition to product composition, USDA Organic certification ensures high standards of traceability, food safety and animal welfare. For this, certified companies are required to keep accurate records of their operations, undergo annual inspections and random checks, and have the USDA Organic label on their packaging.

The USDA Organic label comes in two categories: the "100% USDA Organic" label, reserved for products exclusively composed of organic ingredients, and the "Made with Organic" label, awarded to products containing at least 70% organic ingredients. This label is the only one recognized and supervised by the American legislation in the field of organic farming.

Which organizations offer USDA Organic certification ?

Contrary to popular belief, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not issue the USDA Organic certification itself. This task is entrusted to various USDA-accredited organizations responsible for ensuring that agricultural practices comply with the guidelines of the National Organic Program (NOP), setting the standards of American organic farming.

Organizations accredited by the USDA

In total, more than 80 organizations have received USDA accreditation to certify to its standards. These entities, which may be for-profit, not-for-profit or governmental, and located in both the United States and internationally, have the right to grant the USDA Organic label to the products they certify. In the event of a breach of NOP standards, they are also able to take disciplinary action.

For the official list of these organizations, the NOP website provides all the necessary information. Some of them are world-class :

  • California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) : California-based organization that certifies over 4,000 entities in 43 countries.  
  • Quality Assurance International (QAI) : With a presence in Texas, QAI certifies more than 2,000 entities in 14 countries.  
  • Ecocert : Headquartered in France, Ecocert guarantees the organic compliance of more than 1,000 entities in the United States and more than 30,000 worldwide.

Organizations recognized by the USDA

In addition to organizations directly accredited by the USDA, some are recognized through equivalency agreements. These foreign entities can certify in accordance with US standards through bilateral agreements, thus facilitating trade in organic products between countries.

Currently, the USDA recognizes the organic standards of six territories: Canada, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. These regions have each of the organizations authorized to certify under the USDA Organic label, promoting a wider distribution of certified organic products. For example, in the European Union, more than 50 organizations have the ability to certify according to USDA criteria, including AB Certification, Bioagricert and Soil Association.

What are USDA Organic’s specific requirements for my industry ?

USDA Organic certification applies to a wide variety of operations, including organic producers, processors, distributors and retailers. Depending on the sector concerned, these operations must comply with specific requirements, which depend on the nature of the products, the percentage of organic ingredients used and the type of label chosen.

The requirements for producers

Producers, such as companies that grow, raise or harvest organic agricultural products, must adhere to the organic production rules established by the National Organic Program (NOP). This includes ecological management of soil, nutrients, pests, diseases, weeds, water conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare and traceability.

They are also required to maintain accurate records of their activities, undergo annual inspections and random testing, while respecting the labeling guidelines of the USDA Organic label. The latter can be applied 100% on 100% organic products or mention "Made with Organic" for products composed of at least 70% organic ingredients.

The requirements for processors

Processors responsible for processing, packaging, handling or storing organic agricultural products are subject to the NOP’s organic processing criteria. This framework requires strict segregation between organic and non-organic products, prevention of contamination, regulated use of non-organic ingredients, and rigorous labelling and traceability practices.

Like producers, processors must document their operations, undergo regular inspections and random evaluations, and may use various USDA Organic labels depending on the composition of their products.

Requirements for distributors and retailers

Distributors and retailers, who make organic products available to the consumer, must follow the NOP’s distribution and marketing guidelines. This includes maintaining the integrity and identity of organic products, preventing unauthorized substitutions, verifying certifications, good labelling practices, and seamless traceability.

In addition to annual inspections and surprise tests, these operators must keep detailed records and display the USDA Organic label, respecting the designation given by the producer or processor, unless they modify the product or its packaging.

What are the steps to obtain USDA Organic certification ?

To achieve USDA Organic certification, it is essential to follow five main steps :

1. Adopt organic practices

The first step involves adopting organic practices in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. These standards dictate the rules of production, processing, distribution, and sale of organic products, including the choice of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, additives, manufacturing processes, packaging materials, labels, and keeping records up to date.

2. Choose a certifying body

The second step requires selecting a certifying body accredited by the USDA. The latter is responsible for verifying that your organic practices meet the standards and awarding you certification. With more than 80 USDA-authorized certifying bodies available both locally and internationally, it’s important to choose an organization that fits your business, location, and specific needs.

3. Apply for certification

The third step is to submit an application for certification to the selected certifying body. This request should include detailed information about your business, organic practices, products, ingredients, suppliers, customers, and records. It is also necessary to pay certification fees, which vary depending on the certifying body, the size of your business, the type of products, and the type of label desired.

4. Undergo an on-site inspection

The fourth step is characterized by an on-site inspection of your operations, carried out by an inspector mandated by the certifying body. The purpose of this inspection is to confirm compliance of your organic practices with NOP standards, identify any risk of contamination or mixing with non-organic products, and verify that records are properly maintained. The inspector is also entitled to take samples for laboratory analysis.

5. Receive certification

The fifth and final step of the process involves obtaining certification, provided that the criteria established by the National Organic Program (NOP) and the certification body are fully respected. Once these requirements are met, the certification body sends a certificate. This official document confirms that the entity is now USDA Organic certified, and clearly indicates which variety of label it is allowed to affix to its goods.

With this certificate in hand, the company is now able to include the USDA Organic label on its products, a certification that gives it a respected and recognized brand image, while earning the trust of consumers around the world.

How much does a USDA Organic certification cost ?

The USDA Organic certification varies in cost according to multiple criteria, including the type of business, sector, size of business, products concerned, desired label, certification body, and also the location of the business. The prices for obtaining this certification therefore fluctuate from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, without a fixed rate being applicable.

The main costs associated with obtaining and maintaining USDA Organic certification are as follows :

  • Application fee : This one-time fee covers the administrative costs of the certification body at the time of the initial application.  
  • Inspection fees : To be paid annually for recertification, they cover the costs of travel and compensation for inspectors.  
  • Evaluation fee : This annual fee is the cost of analyzing and verifying the documents and samples provided.  
  • Certification fee : Payable annually for renewal, they cover the issuance of the USDA Organic certificate and label.

However, there are ways to reduce these costs through various forms of support :

  • The Organic Cost-Sharing Program (OCCSP) : This federal program offers a refund of up to 75% of the certification fee, with a cap of $750 per certification per year.  
  • Statement Financial Assistance Programs : Such local aid may include grants, loans or tax breaks for companies engaged in organic farming.  
  • Support for certifying bodies : Some internal programmes offer reductions, instalments or exemptions according to specific criteria such as the size of the operation, its location or sector of activity.

How long does it take to get USDA Organic certification ?

Obtaining USDA Organic certification varies depending on various elements such as the type and complexity of your business, the certification body selected, and the availability of inspectors. This process does not take place in a fixed period of time, and can range from a few weeks to several months.

The three key steps in the certification process are :

  • Transition period : This is the time required for agricultural practices to be in line with the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. For farmers who have used unauthorized products, the transition can last three years, while for processors having to adjust their processes or ingredients, this period can reduce to a few months.
  • Processing time : This is the period during which the certification body assesses your application. This includes the organization and conduct of inspection, sample analysis, conformity assessment and certificate issuance. This process can take from weeks to months, depending on the availability of the certifying body.
  • Waiting time : The time it takes to receive the USDA Organic certificate and label to market your products as organic. This can vary from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the effectiveness of the communication between your company and the certification body.

These delays can be reduced through several strategies :

  • Early preparation : Learn about NOP standards, carefully select your certification body, prepare all necessary documents and anticipate potential questions from the inspector.  
  • Process simplification : Reducing the diversity of products, ingredients, suppliers and customers, opt for clear and efficient organic practices, and use adapted management and traceability tools.  
  • Accompaniment and support : Benefit from the support of a consultant, a mentor, or a professional organization, who can offer you advice, training, contacts, and valuable testimonies.

Is there a renewal for USDA Organic certification ?

USDA Organic certification requires an annual renewal in order to remain compliant with the standards set by the National Organic Program (NOP). This process is essential to ensure that organic farming practices meet regulatory guidelines in the United States. The main obligations related to the renewal of this certification are as follows :

  • Maintain and, if necessary, adjust organic practices to remain compliant with NOP standards, even in the event of changes in regulations, products, ingredients, processes, etc.
  • Complete and send a renewal form to the certifying body at least 60 days before the expiry of the current certification. This form should include up-to-date information about the operation, its organic practices, products, and records.
  • Pay the renewal fee, similar to the initial certification, which covers the costs of the application, inspection, evaluation, and certification itself.
  • Conduct an annual on-site inspection conducted by an inspector of the certifying body to verify continued compliance with NOP standards, the absence of non-compliance or fraud, and the maintenance of records.
  • Receive the new certificate that validates the maintenance of USDA Organic certification and specifies the type of labeling authorized for the products. This allows the farm to continue to apply the USDA Organic label on its products, thus strengthening consumer confidence.

Several devices can simplify the renewal process :

  • The Organic Cost Sharing Program (OCCSP), a federal program that reimburses up to 75% of certification expenses, up to a limit of $750 per year per certification category.
  • Financial assistance programs offered by states, offering grants, loans, or tax reductions to companies engaging in organic farming.
  • Support programs for certifying bodies, offering rebates, payment milestones, or exemptions to operations that meet certain criteria such as size, location, or industry.

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Revue documentaire

Voici la liste des documents nécessaires pour l'ouverture du dossier :
Proforma ou facture finale
Fiche descriptive pour chaque code de nomenclature
Rapports de test ou certificats d'analyse pour chaque code de nomenclature
Certificat de qualité ISO 9001 ou équivalent
Déclaration d'importation à demander à votre acheteur (selon la destination)


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