USDA Certified Organic: Understanding the Basics

Introduction to Organic

Understand the basics of organic: definitions, labels, the USDA organic seal, farming practices and more.

 

  • Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced according to the USDA organic standards.

    These methods integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.

    Learn more about organic standards

  • Look at the label — USDA Organic is the only federally regulated organic label on the shelf. Organic certification means that farmers and businesses have met strict standards for the growing, processing and handling of their products.

    • If you see the USDA organic seal, the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content. Organic production emphasizes natural processes and ingredients.
    • For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic.

    Learn more about organic labeling

  • There are other voluntary labels for livestock products (e.g., meat and eggs):

    • Cage-free: Birds are able to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle. Verification of these claims may vary widely and does not impact what animals eat. Organic animals eat only organic feed.
    • Free-range: Birds are provided shelter in a building, room or area with unlimited access to food and fresh water and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle; the outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. Like cage-free, free-range does not specify the type of feed for animals.
    • Grass-fed: Animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life and have continuous access to pasture during growing season; does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides; meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic. Certified organic cows are required to be on pasture during the grazing season and eat certified organic pasture or feed.
    • Humane: Multiple private labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle. The verification of these claims varies widely.
    • Natural: Meat, poultry and egg products that are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients; does not include standards regarding farm practices and applies to processing of meat, poultry and egg products; no standards or regulations exist for labeling natural food products that do not contain meat, poultry or eggs.
    • Pasture-raised (not regulated): USDA does not have a labeling policy for pasture-raised products.
  • No—use of genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not allowed in organic products:

    • An organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds
    • An organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn
    • An organic processor can’t use GMO ingredients

    Prevention

    To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show that they aren’t using GMOs and that they are using prevention practices to protect their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table. Organic operations implement site-specific preventive practices and document their practices in an organic system plan. For example, farmers:

    • Plant their seeds early or late to avoid organic and GMO crops flowering at the same time (which can lead to cross-pollination).
    • Harvest crops prior to flowering or sign cooperative agreements with neighboring farms to avoid planting GMO crops next to organic ones.
    • Designate the edges of their land as a buffer zone where the land is managed organically, but the crops aren’t sold as organic.
    • Thoroughly clean any shared farm or processing equipment to prevent unintended exposure to GMOs or prohibited substances.

    Oversight

    On-site inspections and records verify that farmers are following their organic system plan to minimize the risk of unintentional exposure to GMOs or prohibited substances. Additionally, certifying agents conduct residue testing to determine if these preventive practices are adequate to avoid contact with substances such as prohibited pesticides, antibiotics and GMOs. Any certified organic operation found to use GMOs or other prohibited substances may face enforcement actions, including loss of certification and financial penalties. Crops exposed to GMOs or prohibited substances may not be sold or labeled as organic; the crops may be sold as conventional, or “non-organic,” products.

    Learn more about substances prohibited in organic operations

  • The USDA National Organic Program regulates all organic crops, livestock and agricultural products certified to the USDA organic standards.

    USDA also conducts oversight of organic certification, compliance and enforcement activities, and product labeling. To sell, label or represent their products as organic, organic farms and businesses must follow all of the specifications set out by the USDA organic regulations.

    Protecting Organic Integrity

    • More than 45,000 onsite inspections per year by certifying agents to monitor compliance with USDA organic standards. Every certified operation has at least one onsite inspection each year.
    • Certifiers audited by USDA to make sure they are implementing the rules correctly.
    • Residue testing program to verify that prohibited pesticides aren’t being applied to organic crops.
    • Robust compliance and enforcement activities.
    • Risk-based investigations based on operation size, complexity, geographic location or compliance history.

    Learn more about the National Organic Program

  • The National Organic Program is a regulatory program that operates as a public-private partnership. Our activities build fair and competitive organic markets for farms, businesses and consumers investing in the organic option. The roles of the National Organic Program are to:

    • Accredit and oversee third-party certifiers, who certify and oversee organic producers and handlers.
    • Audit certifiers to ensure they are properly implementing the USDA organic regulations.
    • Work with certifiers to ensure organic integrity of USDA-certified organic producers and handlers around the world.
    • Investigate complaints and enforce the USDA organic regulations when violations are identified.
    • Administer the USDA organic regulations (7 Code of Federal Regulations Part 205), developing and amending regulations and policies for continuous improvement of the organic sector.
    • Support the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a Federal Advisory Committee.
    • Administer the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, based on the NOSB’s recommendations.
    • Establish and monitor organic trade agreements with representatives of foreign governments.
    • Develop technologies that help monitor the organic market and build connections between buyers and sellers.

    Learn how other USDA programs support organic

  • Organic producers use natural processes and materials that contribute to soil health, crop and livestock nutrition, pest and weed management, and conservation of biological diversity. Organic producers and handlers use common practices across diverse environments to ensure organic integrity and sustainability.

    Organic Crop Production Practices cover areas like…

    • Maintaining soil fertility.
    • Use of seeds and planting stock.
    • Crop rotation.
    • Management of pests, weeds and diseases.
    • Maintaining identity and integrity of organic crops.

    Read the full Guide to Organic Crop Production (pdf)

    Organic Livestock Production Practices cover areas like…

    • Livestock living conditions and facilities.
    • Grazing requirements.
    • Animal Health.
    • Organic Feed.
    • Animal Origin.

    Read the full Guide to Organic Livestock Production (pdf)

    Organic Processing Practices cover areas like…

    • Organic Ingredients.
    • Commingling and Contact Prevention.
    • Managing Pests.

    Read the full Guide to Organic Processing (pdf)

  • Learn more about the National Organic Program: what we do, whom we serve, how to contact us.

    About NOP