The National Organic Program (NOP), part of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), oversees and enforces the integrity of the rigorous USDA organic standards and the accreditation of organic certifiers.
Organic is one of the most heavily regulated and closely monitored food systems in the U.S. Prescriptive regulations cover the growing, handling, and processing of organic fresh produce and other foods. Any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified. U.S. organic standards require:
- Farms, handlers, and processors must submit a detailed application that documents their operation, processes and products. This is called an Organic Systems Plan (OSP) and its purpose is to help inspectors and consumers trace organic products from the farm to the table.
- Healthy soil and balanced ecosystems are the foundation of organic farming. Organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. This must be documented in the OSP.
- Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. For more guidance on what can and can't be used in organic production, handling and processing, scroll down to the National List below.
- Establishment of buffers between organic fields and nearby conventional farms.
- Use of manure only in accordance with strict guidelines (composting time and temperature to kill pathogens).
- A 3-year transition period for fields that have been farmed conventionally (during this time, the field must be farmed organically, and produce grown on this land may not be labeled "organic" until the 3-year transition period is completed)
- Thorough certification audits by third-party inspectors, both announced and unannounced, are done annually for every organic farm, handler, and processor to ensure products labeled organic are grown, processed and handled in accordance with the rigorous USDA organic standards.
- Organic food contains no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
- All products bearing the organic label must also comply with federal, state, FDA, and international food safety requirements.
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited
Substances in Organic Production
In general, synthetic substances are prohibited for crop and livestock production unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed for crop and livestock production unless specifically prohibited.
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies the synthetic substances that may be used and the nonsynthetic (natural) substances that may not be used in organic crop and livestock production.
- For example, arsenic and strychnine (among others) are natural materials yet prohibited in organic production.
- The list of allowed synthetics for pest control is extremely limited – just 25 for pest control as compared to more than 900 for conventional pest control.
The National List also identifies a limited number of non-organic substances that may be used in or on processed organic products. For example, salt is not cultivated and cannot be certified organic but is used in many products.
Every synthetic or non-organic material and ingredient on the National List is granted approval for only five years at a time, based on necessity and the absence of an organic alternative. At the end of that five years, the material will automatically come off the list (called "sunset") unless a petition to keep it on the list is approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Every petition is subject to public comments as part of the NOSB review.
Organic Labeling and
the USDA Organic Seal
The USDA Organic regulations govern labeling as well as production, processing and handling of organic food. Only foods produced in accordance with the strict USDA Organic standards and certified by an accredited certification agency may use the word organic or the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
Use of the USDA Organic Seal is voluntary (but widely used) and restricted as outlined below.
These items may use the USDA Organic Seal:
- 100% Organic: products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients.
- Organic: products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The 5% of ingredients which are not organic must be ingredients specified on the National List as noted above, such as salt.
These items may not use the USDA Organic Seal:
- Made with Organic Ingredients: processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.
- Organic ingredients less than 70%: processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients must not use the term "organic" other than to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the ingredients statement.
Producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from certification but they are still required to comply with the standards in order to use the term organic on food. Without certification, however, they may not use the USDA organic seal.
The National Organic Standards Board
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is comprised of 15 volunteers from across the organic community, appointed to serve by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. The NOSB considers and makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products, with special responsibility for the National List.
NOSB members include:
- 4 who own or operate an organic farming operation
- 2 who own or operate an organic handling operation
- 1 who owns or operates a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products
- 3 with expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation
- 3 represent public interest or consumer interest groups
- 1 with expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry
- 1 who is a USDA accredited certifying agent
You can explore more details about the USDA's National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board at: