How Does USDA Assess Organic Equivalency with other Countries?

Like the U.S., many countries have their own organic standards and certification programs. For organic businesses operating in multiple countries, this can mean they must maintain different organic certifications in each country where they operate.

Organic equivalency is when two countries recognize each other’s organic program as being equivalent. If two countries are equivalent, organic products can be sold in either country with just one organic certification.  For U.S. exporters, this reduces the number of certifications they must maintain.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) works with the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to establish equivalency arrangements. Equivalence means that the U.S. has determined that a foreign government’s standards, organic control system oversight, and enforcement programs meet or exceed the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the USDA organic regulations.

First, foreign governments seeking organic equivalence with the U.S. contact USDA to request an equivalency determination.  The country provides information about its organic system, including the organization that leads the organic program, its organic standards, and the way it makes sure the standards are met (conformity assessment). The country also provides a description of the crops or products for which equivalency is being sought (e.g., all agricultural products, livestock products, crop products). 

USDA reviews requests for organic equivalency from foreign governments based on budget and resource availability. If USDA chooses to proceed, the foreign government is asked to provide a detailed side-by-side comparison between its organic system and the USDA system.

After the side-by-side review, USDA audits the foreign government’s system to assess whether that system operates in the way the country has described. USDA and the foreign government engage in technical discussions to resolve any differences.  Differences must be resolved before an equivalence determination can be made. Equivalence determinations may include some or all raw or processed organic agricultural products. Even within a product category (e.g., livestock products), equivalence may exist for some products but not for others

If USDA determines that the foreign government’s organic system is equivalent, the two governments exchange official letters and the terms of equivalency arrangement, including any product exception if the systems are not equivalent in specific areas.  Once this process is complete, AMS will publically disclose on its website the terms of the determination and the final resolution of differences between the U.S. and foreign government’s system.

Maintaining organic equivalency is an ongoing process, with USDA officials conducting regular onsite audits of the foreign government’s organic program. Onsite audits are completed on a two-year cycle, beginning at the close of the prior review process. Onsite audit scheduling may be adjusted based on risk factors, budget and resource availability.