Organic Crop Certification
Organic Certification Agencies
The National Organic Program (NOP) was established as a marketing program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service to develop, implement, and administer national production, handling, and labeling standards. The NOP is responsible for developing the national organic standards and establishing guidelines for accredited certifying agents. The NOP, through an application process, accredits private businesses, organizations, and state agencies to certify producers and handlers of agricultural products according to the NOP regulations. Certifying agencies act on behalf of the NOP to collect information, perform site inspections, and evaluate producer’s organic system plan to determine if they are in compliance with NOP regulations. The NOP also recognizes foreign certifying agencies that have been accredited by a foreign government authority provided that (1) the foreign government’s standards meet the requirements of the NOP or (2) an agreement has been developed between the U.S. and the foreign government. A complete list of both domestic and foreign certifying agents can be found on the NOP website listed in the resource chapter.
The Role of the Certifying Agencies
The principal responsibility of certifying agencies, which can be state departments of agriculture or independent organizations, is to ensure that organic integrity is maintained and verified throughout the production and handling process. Organic certifiers review organic system plans for compliance to the standards and grant certification to the producer or handler if all non-compliances are addressed in a satisfactory manner. Organic certifiers are responsible for annual inspections for verification of compliance to the NOP standards. Additional inspections, whether announced or unannounced, are scheduled at the discretion of the certifier. As part of providing certification services, certification agencies often conduct material reviews to determine whether material inputs a producer wants to use, such as fertilizers and pest control products, are in fact compliant with the requirements of the NOP regulations.
Selecting a Certifying Agent
Under the standards, before a food can be labeled as organic, a government-approved inspector must inspect the farm where it is grown to ensure that it was raised according to USDA organic standards. In addition, companies that handle or process food labeled organic must be certified. Since the inspector is often the only person you meet face-to-face throughout the certification process, it is natural to equate the inspector with the certifying agent. Since both parties have distinct roles, it is important to understand which services each party can and cannot provide. However, the certifying agent is responsible for collecting fees, reviewing your application and the inspection report, and determining whether your operation is certified organic. The certifying agent must maintain strict confidentiality, protect your proprietary information, and prevent conflicts of interest among the three key parties: you (the certified operation), the certifying agent, and the inspector. The primary role of the inspector is to gather on-site information and provide an accurate report to the certifier. The inspector works at the direction of, and on behalf of, the certifier.
Certifier Agentís Fees
The cost of organic certification is borne by the certified operations and is paid directly to the certifying agent. Since the USDA requires that certifiers fully disclose all fees, an applicant can compare certifiers based on expense or fees. Actual certification costs or fees vary widely depending on the certifying agent and the size, type, and complexity of the operation. Certification costs may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Before applying, it is important that you understand the certifier’s fee structure and billing cycle. Typically, there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, and assessment on annual production or sales, as well as inspection fees. If you are well prepared for an efficient inspection, your inspection fees will typically be lower. Some certifiers combine these costs into a single, fixed annual fee calculated for each operation; others charge them separately.
Click on the following topics for more information on organic crop certification.