National Organic Standards

The National Organic Standards implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) took effect on October 21, 2002. Products bearing the USDA Organic Label meet the requirements of the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule, the national standards for the production, handling, processing, and labeling of organically grown food in the United States.

History: The Organic Foods Production Act; the making of the organic standards; court rulings on organic; and congressional amendment
What Is Allowed and Required: The certification process for growers and processors; what practices and substances are allowed and required; what is not regulated by the organic standards
Labeling: What USDA organic labels mean and to which products they apply; the labeling and regulation of products used in growing organic food
Importance of Organic Integrity: Why we must continue to insist that the National Organic Standards Board upholds strict rules regulating organic agriculture


History of USDA Organic Regulations

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) [full text available here] to determine uniform standards for organic agriculture and processing. The purpose was to establish national standards for organic products in order to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard, and to facilitate interstate commerce in fresh and processed organic food. The OFPA established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the purpose of which is to assist in the ongoing development of organic standards. Prior to the USDA organic rules, state and local organizations regulated organic production with some local variations in standards.

The USDA released a weak version of a proposed organic rule in October 1998, but it was met with much criticism and sparked an unprecedented 325,603 public comments. USDA proposed allowing bioengineered crops, sewage sludge, and irradiation in organic production, which became known as the “big three.” Many changes, including removal of the "big three," were made to the final rule.

Though it is generally agreed that the final rule is a vast improvement over the proposed rule of 1998, many organic farmers and environmentalists have concerns with the regulations. In October 2002, just days after the rules governing organic under NOP were implemented, Maine blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey filed suit against USDA claiming that USDA regulations governing foods labeled “organic” contravened several principles of the OFPA (read "In the Words of Arthur Harvey" from Pesticides and You).

Of primary concern were the allowance of certain non-organic agricultural substances and certain synthetic ingredients under the organic label, and the treatment (feed, in particular) of dairy cows transitioning to organic. Having initially lost on all counts, Harvey prevailed in January 2005 when the Court of Appeals ruled in his favor that the USDA organic regulations were in conflict with the OFPA. Groups, including Beyond Pesticides, filed a petition asking USDA to bring the regulations into compliance with the law (read more from Beyond Pesticides' Daily News Blog).

However, following the Harvey victory in the Court of Appeals, Congress engaged in backroom talks with the Organic Trade Association and amended the OFPA to allow synthetic substances in “organic” labeled products, and to adjust the feed regulations for dairy cows. We reported on this amendment in the Winter 2005–2006 issue of Pesticides and You. Because of the amendments to OFPA, the court found in 2006 that the Secretary of Agriculture was not required to comply with the earlier consent decree, thus reversing its earlier ruling in favor of Mr. Harvey. Many organic farmers’ and consumers’ groups decried the amendments to the OFPA because of the lack of democratic participation.

Beyond Pesticides, along with many sister organizations, issued an Open Letter to the Organic Community to set the record straight on the amendments to the OFPA, and to bridge differences in moving ahead together to strengthen the partnerships — between consumers, farmers, and food processors — that will grow the organic marketplace.

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What Is Allowed and Required

Farming varies from place to place and farmer to farmer. Organic farming is no different than conventional farming in this regard, but there are certain underlying principles of organic agriculture that are the basis for the regulations implemented by the USDA. Rather than a doctrine on the values and interpretations of organic farming, the rules have distilled organic principles into what is allowed, not allowed, and required for certification. Often, people focus on what is not allowed in organic agriculture to highlight its divergence from conventional agriculture. The use of antibiotics, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, and irradiation is prohibited in organic production, and the list of allowed pesticides is highly restricted to include only the least toxic controls, derived primarily from natural (non-synthetic) ingredients.

Certification standards

All producers and handlers of organic products are required to be certified by a USDA accredited certifying agent in order to claim to be USDA Certified Organic. There are currently 55 domestic agencies and 40 international agencies accredited by the USDA. Certifying agents make annual visits to farms and processing plants, and are permitted to make unannounced visits to make sure a facility is in compliance with the standards.

Farms are required to submit to the certifier a comprehensive plan that includes things such as the land history of all fields, a fertility and nutrient management plan, a pest, weed, and disease management plan, and the origin, feed, and health care of livestock. A grower must report all products used on the farm, as well as rate and date of application. Failure to report a product used, even an approved one, will put the grower out of compliance with the organic standards and result in appropriate reprimands and/or revocation of certification.

For a complete explanation of these standards, including products allowed, visit the text of the National Organic Standards.

There is also an independent organization, called the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), that reviews products submitted by applicants to determine if they comply with the National Organic Standards. This list of OMRI-approved products is widely used as the most comprehensive list of products approved for organic production. OMRI is not affiliated with USDA and not all products approved for organic production are listed with OMRI.

Pesticide Regulation

Organic production is subject to many more regulations aimed to protect ecological and human health than is conventional agriculture. One area of particular importance, and iin especially stark contrast to conventional agriculture, is the regulation of pesticides. In conventional agriculture, synthetic pesticides with known health effects may still be registered for use, and the “inert” ingredients in the formulations are not taken into consideration in the registration process, even though many inert ingredients are toxic per se. Under the organic regulations, only naturally derived pesticides and a small number of synthetic ingredients of low toxicity, such as boric acid, may be used. Inert ingredients in these products must be approved for organic production.

Sometimes an active ingredient may be utilized in both conventional and organic agriculture, but only certain formulations are approved for organic use because of the inert ingredients. An example of this is the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is widely used to combat various insects in the larval stage. Bt itself degrades rapidly and has very low toxicity to humans and wildlife. However, Bt’s effectiveness is threatened by the introduction of genetically engineered crops in conventional agriculture that contain Bt, such as corn, cotton, and potatoes. In these crops, Bt is always present, which means there is great potential for insects to develop resistance to Bt. For more on this issue, please visit our genetic engineering page.

Using even those pesticides approved for organic production is generally a last resort for organic farmers. Crop rotation, good soil and plant health, and biological controls, such as beneficial insects, are the favored methods for controlling pests and diseases. Without the use of herbicides, organic farmers rely on good crop rotation, cover cropping, mechanical cultivation, and mulching to limit weeds. No-till organic agriculture is a new approach that combines some of these practices at once.

What is not Regulated Under the Organic Standards

The organic standards have intentionally focused on production methods only, and do not address worker treatment. The elimination of toxic pesticide exposure for workers is an enormous step in the right direction for just working conditions. However, it is important to keep in mind that the organic label does not indicate anything about the treatment of farm workers beyond this toxic exposure issue. For more on this, visit our buying organic page.

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In order to ensure a standard for the use of the term “organic” and the use of the "USDA Organic" seal, the USDA has issued labeling protocols for fresh and processed products containing organic ingredients. Only the top two listings may use the USDA Organic seal on the product. Here is a summary:

“100% Organic” must consist of 100% organically produced ingredients and processing aids, excluding water and salt; may display the USDA Organic seal.

“Organic” must consist of a minimum of 95% organically produced ingredients, excluding water and salt, and the remaining ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List, and/or specific non-organically produced agricultural substances not available commercially in organic form; may display the USDA Organic seal.

“Made with Organic Ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients; may not display the USDA Organic seal.

Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients may not use the word "organic" on the principal display panel of the label, but may list specific organic ingredients in the ingredients statement.

Each organic ingredient must be identified as such in the ingredient information box. The name of the certifying agency must be displayed on the information panel.

“Certified Organic” applies only to products grown organically. It does not apply to products that may be used in organic production. In other words, a carrot, a bag of potato chips, or cotton may be certified organic, but the potting soil or biological pesticide used in growing these products is not certified organic. The closest thing to the USDA Organic seal for products used in organic agricultural production is the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listing, but this is an independent agency not run by the USDA National Organic Program. Companies pay to have their products evaluated by OMRI, and OMRI tests them to see if they comply with the National Organic Standards.

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Importance of organic integrity

The Winter 2005–2006 issue of Pesticides and You expressly illustrates why a strong organic standard with integrity is so important. It must be held up as the solution to the pesticide problem. For example, if the two victims of pesticide poisoning described in this issue were living in communities where organic is the norm, they probably would not have been poisoned. Similarly, as the debate over the safety of pesticides continues, and the regulatory risk assessment and risk management processes continue to be politicized, it is clear that the real solution is the widespread adoption of organic practices.

This issue also contains a special focus on pesticides and water, and the widespread failures to protect the nation’s waterways from pesticide contamination. Agriculture is only one source of the pesticide contamination, and along with advocating for organic agriculture, Beyond Pesticides continues to advocate for organic lawn care. The National Coalition for Pesticide Free Lawns is a broad coalition, with members in more than 20 states, working to eliminate toxic pesticide use in land care.

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