Certification and labeling in the United States

In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). The overarching objective of the OFPA was to ensure that all agricultural products marked as organic would, in the future, meet consistent and uniform standards. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) delivered, and continues to deliver, upon this objective.

Since October 21 2002, every product sold in the United States claiming organic status, whether domestic or imported, has been required to adhere to the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Certification

Any product in the United States that is labelled as “100% organic”, “organic”, or “made with organic ingredients”, must be certified. Certification provides assurance that the product complies with standards mandated by the NOP. These standards are comprehensive and cover every aspect of organic farming, processing, transportation, labeling and packaging. The standards specifically preclude the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, sewage sludge, artificial fertilizers, GMOs and irradiation.

Labeling

The USDA’s strict labeling rules are your guide to understanding the exact organic content of the food you buy. When you go shopping, look for the USDA Organic seal. A copy of the seal appears to the right of this text. Only products that have at least 95 percent of their ingredients derived from organic production methods are permitted to use the USDA Organic seal. The USDA Organic seal is your assurance that the food you are purchasing is in fact organic. Particularly if you’re new to organics, this is one symbol that you should commit to memory before going shopping.

Labeling of single ingredient food items

Foods consisting of only one ingredient, for example, pieces of fruit, vegetables, packages of meat, cheese, eggs or cartons of milk, are only permitted to use the word “organic”, and make use of the USDA Organic seal, if they are 100 percent organic. Single ingredient items that are not 100 percent organic are not permitted to lay claim to being organic. After all, it would not make sense to describe and label an apple as being 76 percent organic. An apple is either organic – and therefore 100 percent organic – or it’s not. There exists no middle ground. This means that when you’re out shopping, you can be confident that any single ingredient food product labelled as organic, and making use of the USDA Organic seal, is in fact 100 percent organic.

Labeling of foods with more than one ingredient

Foods comprised of a number of different ingredients, such as breakfast cereals, bakery products and yogurts, fall into one of four labeling categories. The percentage of organic ingredients a product contains determines which of the four labeling categories it belongs to. The four categories, and the labeling permitted for each, are explained below.

100 percent organic products

  • Must contain only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt)
  • Are eligible to display the USDA Organic seal
  • Must display the certifying agency’s name and seal

At least 95 percent organic products

  • Must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt)
  • Any remaining ingredients (up to a maximum of 5 percent) must consist only of non-agricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form
  • Are eligible to display the USDA Organic seal
  • Must display the certifying agency’s name and seal

At least 70 percent organic products

  • Must contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt)
  • May use the words “made with organic ingredients” and list the three main organic ingredients on the principal display panel
  • Are NOT eligible to display the USDA Organic seal

Less than 70 percent organic products

  • Are NOT permitted to use the term organic anywhere on the principal display panel
  • Are entitled to identify, in the ingredients list, the specific ingredients used that have been produced organically
  • Are NOT eligible to display the USDA Organic seal

US and Canadian Organic Standards Equivalency Agreement

On June 18, 2009 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) signed an agreement recognizing each country’s organic standards as equivalent.

Under the equivalency agreement, which came into effect on July 1, 2009, any raw produce grown without Sodium Nitrate and processed products certified to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards are not required to become certified to the Canadian Organic Regime (COR) standards. Similarly, Canadian organic products certified to COR standards may be sold or labeled in the United States as organically produced.

Both the USDA Organic seal and the Canada Organic Biologique logo may be used on certified products from both countries, in addition to the certifier’s logo.

USDA Certifying Agents

Accredited Certifying Agents ensure the integrity of the USDA's National Organic Program.

  1. Organic Certifiers - USDA Accredited Certification Agents

    Organic Certifiers

    committed to working with organic producers and dedicated to consumers ...more

  2. Pennsylvania Certified Organic - USDA Accredited Certification Agents

    Pennsylvania Certified Organic

    a certifying agency that educates and certifies ...more

  3. Maryland Department of Agriculture - USDA Accredited Certification Agents

    Maryland Department of Agriculture

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People

Learn, understand, and become inspired as we introduce you to the people behind organic.

  1. Michael Dimock from Roots of Change

    Michael Dimock from Roots of Change

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  2. Alain Gracianette from Marylhurst University

    Alain Gracianette from Marylhurst University

    Alain Gracianette is the Chair of Marylhurst University’s MBA ...more

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Food

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