a walk down any supermarket aisle and you'll notice that more and more organic
food products have found their rightful place alongside 'conventionally'
produced foods - testament to the fact that organic food production is now the
fastest growing and most profitable segment of American agriculture.
fact, approximately 2% of the U.S.
food supply is grown using organic methods. Over the past decade, sales of
organic products have shown an annual increase of at least 20%, the fastest
growing sector of agriculture (Source:
while many may still consider organic food production as a niche market, others
see entrepreneurial opportunities to lower input costs, improve sustainability,
capture high-value markets, and boost income.
course, by its very nature, organic food production is a heavily regulated
industry. Producers must obtain a certification and comply with production
handling standards, labeling laws, and so on. Organic food retailers also face
regulatory responsibilities that carry hefty fines for non-compliance.
you are new to organic farm production or wish to scale your existing
operation, below is a primer of some of the key federally mandated standards
for the production, handling and retailing of certified organic food products.
1. What is a 'Certified
Organic' Food Product?
food is commonly described as crops and animals produced and fed with natural
food and without the use of chemical additives.
Most food labeled and sold
as 'organic', '100 percent organic' or 'made with organic ingredients' must be
officially certified as such (see below for exceptions). In
fact, 'certified organic' refers to
agricultural products that have been grown or processed according to uniform
standards verified by independent state or private organizations accredited by
the USDA. To read more about what constitutes a 'certified organic' product refer
2. How to get Certified as an Accredited
'Certified Organic' Producer or Handler
you produce or handle any organic food you will need to apply for certification
through a USDA certified agent. Your application will need to include specifics
about the history of the agricultural land, products being grown, raised or
processed, as well as an organic system plan (OSP) describing the practices and
substances used in production. A
certified agent will review this information and conduct an on-site inspection
to determine eligibility. You can
download the relevant application form and learn more about the certification
process from the USDA's National Organic Program here
or search for the nearest USDA-accredited certifying agency here.
should be aware that the certification typically involves an annual
inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400-$2,000/year, in the U.S.,
depending on the agency and the size of the operation). Fortunately, the Organic Cost Share Program offers reimbursement for up to 75% of the
certification fee (not to exceed $500) - but is only available in 15 states.
More on this program here.
3. Who doesn't Need to
volume producers and handlers of organic agricultural products (those that sell
less than $5,000 a year in organic products) are exempt from certification but
can still label their foods as organic. Do note that if you do fall into this
category, you will still need to comply with national standards and labeling
requirements. Learn more about the exemption process (which also applies to
certain handlers and retailers) in this USDA fact sheet
(or check out the USDA organic certification Web page here).
4. Steps for Complying with Organic Food Production and Handling
you are a 'certified organic' producer or handler, you will need to comply with
National Organic Program (NOP) regulations, which ensure that organically
labeled products meet consistent national standards. Standards for the organic
production and handling of crops and livestock are all described in this quick fact sheet
from the USDA (or view this and other NOP fact sheets here).
5. Organic Labeling
and Marketing Guidelines
requirements for 'certified organic' products and non-certified (discussed
above) are based on a percentage of organic ingredients in a product. Here's
how it works:
The '100 percent organic' label - To use this label, products must contain only
organically produced ingredients and processing aids (excluding water and
The 'organic' label -
These products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The remaining ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances approved by the USDA.
your product meets either of these criteria, you may display these labeling
terms on your packaging and in advertisements.
The 'made with organic ingredients' label - Processed products that contain at least 70% organic
ingredients can use this label. However, while you can use the label and the
seal of your approving certification agent on the package, you cannot use the
USDA seal on the package.
processed product that contains less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use
the term 'organic' anywhere on the label, but in these instances you can
identify the specific ingredients that are organic on the information panel.
labeling provisions and penalties for misuse are described by the USDA National
Organic Program here.
Business Agriculture Guide - These resources provide information
on how to comply with federal regulations that apply to farms and agricultural
producers, including organic food production.
Americans Are Turning to Organic Foods (Organic Consumers
Trade Association - A membership-based business association
that focuses on the organic business community in North America. Its
mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the
environment, farmers, the public and the economy.
Resources (National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service)
- Market resources for organic food and
fiber products, including organic prices, sales data, market trends, and other
market data, organic trade associations, directories, and other organic
marketing publications and resources, with contact information for ordering
Farm Loan Guide - From start-up loans, marketing
assistance loans, to disaster loans, these resources describe farm loan
programs provided by FSA.
* Note: Hyperlink leads to non-government Web site.