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USDA Organic Food: National Organic Program

Organic Certification: Define Organic Foods

USDA organic, organic food Canada and U.K. organic certification standards help consumers and producers define organic foods. The USDA organic logo is highly recognized in its markets; other international organic standards are growing in recognition.

International organic standards and regulations have helped regulate the industry. For nearly two centuries, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been protecting citizens by regulating and governing the cultivation and production of food grown within the United States.

A trend toward healthier living, a recognition of organic food benefits, and a surge in organic farming that occurred in the late 1980s created a need for more uniform standards for those claiming to produce all-natural, organic, and chemical-free foods. The USDA definition of organic standards was created out of this need.

In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was enacted and the National Organic Program (NOP) was created to govern the production and handling of all foods labeled organic.

The NOP does not manage the safety or nutritional value of organic foods, but does manage the set of nationally recognized standards governing all aspects of planting, cultivation, processing, and packaging.

These guidelines are based on input provided by the National Organic Standards Board, a panel made up of 15 members representing various industries relating to agriculture, production, and sales, as well as consumers. Private and governmental research also influences the regulations in place.

The USDA Organic Logo and Label

usda organic

Labelling standards are put in place by the NOP and regulate all food products claimed to be organic.

The USDA organic logo can only be used by certified farmers and processors.

Small farms and food facilities can label their products organic as long as their sales don't exceed $5,000 in a year, but typically any product labelled organic not only meets the following requirements, but is certified and accredited by the USDA NOP as well. Products labelled ...

  • 100 percent organic - are completely organic. Fresh fruits and vegetables adhering to the organic handling and processing standards, as well as foods containing only 100 percent organic ingredients, can carry this USDA organic food label
  • Organic - are those made of no less than 95% organically grown ingredients
  • Made with organic - are products with at least 70% of their ingredients being organic

Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients are not allowed to market their product as organic in any way, but organic ingredients may be noted within the list of ingredients.

Define Organic Foods: Production and Handling Standards

Before earning the USDA organic label, farms and manufacturers must be certified by an accredited agent to ensure that all regulations are followed precisely.

Only all-natural, or non-synthetic, materials are allowed in all phases of production, as well as handling. Genetic science, sewage sludge, and ionizing radiation are also prohibited for organic certification.

Organic Arable Production Standards

  • The land used for organic crops must be free of chemicals and other disallowed substances for at least 3 years before an organic harvest
  • Organic seeds are used whenever possible
  • Crops are maintained using natural practices without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and chemical agents
  • Plans for land usage, including crop rotation and cultivation procedures, are outlined in a detailed report and adhere to organic standards

Organic Livestock Production Standards

Animals that are bred and raised for organic food purposes are closely regulated as well, whether they are raised for meat or to produce eggs or milk. Those animals raised for meat must live under organic conditions before birth, continuing until slaughter, but farms can be converted to an organic facility over a year long process.

  • Animal feed must be 100% organic
  • Growth hormones and antibiotics are not allowed. Health and well-being are managed using preventive methods, including vaccinations
  • Animals have access to fresh water and clean living facilities
  • Instead of being confined to small pens, organic livestock has access to pastures and open space for stress-free living

All USDA organic approved foods are produced and handled with safety for people, animals, and the environment in mind. Organic products are kept separate from non-organic products during all phases of processing, including handling.

USDA Organic Standards for Certification

Before any farm is even considered for USDA organic standards certification, an application must be submitted including information about the business and a three year history of the land and its usage.

An organic plan detailing practices and procedures, including recordkeeping systems and storage practices must be presented as well.

An accredited certifying agent will perform an on-site inspection of the farm after eligibility is determined. After this inspection, the agent will make a decision and either issue organic certification or deny the application.

Certified organic farms are required to keep precise records regarding all practices and these records are kept a minimum of five years. An agent will perform a new inspection each year to ensure compliance with all regulations.

The National Organic Program makes it easy for consumers to shop for organic products safely. Foods bearing the organic label are guaranteed to be truly organic. With these regulations in place, you can feel good about buying organic and you can know, without a doubt, that you are providing your family with food that is chemical and additive free.

This is in addition to the fact that the whole environment benefits from the way food is produced.

Organic food benefits the environment. Through organic farming practices, environmental health issues will be reduced and/or eliminated. The USDA National Organic Program website provides more information for those interested in the American organics program. For those interested in other international certification standards programs (such as Organic Food Canada), check with your country's food and drug administration program for information.

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