National Organic Program Standards and Organic Systems Plan

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Resources

The National Organic Program (NOP): What Agricultural Professionals Need to Know (PDF 38.3KB)
One page bulleted summary of key points.

USDA National Organic Program Rule Summary Outline (PDF 111KB)
Section-by-section coverage of the NOP Rule.

NOSB Information (PDF 330KB)
Mission, vision, and duties of the NOSB.

Federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (PDF 316KB)
Statutory text.

International Standards (PDF 28.7KB)
Summary of significant export market standards.

National Organic Program Rule (PDF 160KB)
Regulatory text.

Organic System Plan Overview (PDF 41 KB)
Description of the different components of an organic systems plan.

Preparing for an Organic Inspection: Steps and Checklists (PDF 622 KB)
ATTRA.  Model forms and helpful suggestions to construct an organic systems plan.

Workbooks, Questionnaires, and Forms
ATTRA.  Additional outlines and procedures that can be used to help a farm prepare an organic systems plan.

Frequently Asked Questions About the National Organic Program and Certification

Basic questions about the administration of and compliance with organic standards.

What is the National Organic Program?
The National Organic Program (NOP) consists of the regulations and regulatory agents to establish and protect the standards for agricultural products labeled as ‘organic.’  These standards are known as the National Organic Standards. Congress authorized the USDA to establish the NOP by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. All organic food label claims made in the United States must now be backed by valid certification according to the NOP Rule.

Who has to be certified?
The USDA regulations require that all producers and handlers that make an organic claim for their products must be certified by a USDA-accredited certification agency. The only exceptions are for small farmers or handlers with less than $5,000 in gross organic sales, handlers that buy and sell without repackaging or changing form, and retailers that do not process food.  Exempt operations must maintain records and follow the exact same production practices as certified farmers in order to label their products as organic.

Who does the certifying?
The USDA accredits state, private and international agencies to certify agricultural products and food as organic under the NOP.

How long does it take to transition land farmed conventionally to organic status?
In order to be eligible for organic certification, land must have had no prohibited materials applied to it for three years immediately preceding harvest.

Must an entire farm be converted, or can a farm make the transition field by field?
A farm can be converted field by field. However, to be certified, a field must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to protect it from runoff and unintended contamination from adjoining land. The farm also needs to have facilities and record keeping in place to ensure and document that organic and non-organic crops are not commingled.

What are acceptable sources of animals used for organic meat production?
Slaughter animals can come from any breeding stock that has been organically managed from the last third of gestation.

What sources of poultry are acceptable for organic poultry products?
Poultry must be managed organically from the second day of life.

Can animals be converted to organic production at the same time as the land?
Yes. Livestock operations may convert animals with the land on which they are pastured.

What does it mean to be ‘certified organic’?
Certified organic means that the food has been grown and handled according to the National Organic Program Standards and inspected by independent state or private organizations. Periodic unannounced inspections are also conducted. Certification includes annual inspection of all farm fields and facilities, farm activity records, plus periodic testing of soil, water and produce to ensure that growers and processors meet National Organic Standards.

How can I contact an organic certifier?
The NOP website lists all accredited organic certifiers with their contact information at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

How much does certification cost?
Each certification body is required to establish and publish fee schedules that are applied fairly to all applicants. Fees vary considerably from agency to agency, and depend on the size and type of organic operation to be certified. Some state departments of agriculture are offering a significant reimbursement under a federal cost-share program.

Are farms outside the U.S. subject to the National Organic Standards?
In order to market agricultural products as organic in the United States, they must have been produced and handled in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Standards. The same system of inspection and certification to the standards is applied to foreign operators who export their products into the United States.

Is organic certification automatically recognized in other states?
All U.S. states and USDA-accredited certifiers accept certifications issued by USDA accredited or recognized certification programs. Foreign governments and international certification bodies have similar organic standards but may insist on additional certification to confirm operators who export organic products meet their standards. Some U.S. certifiers offer this additional service.

How does a farm get certified?
The operator obtains and reads the National Organic Standards, and conducts a self-assessment to see if the operation meets these requirements in terms of land history, production practices, materials used and record keeping procedures. In many cases, some practices and systems need to be modified to comply. Once an operation complies, the operator then selects an accredited certifier, submits an application, gets inspected, meets any conditions identified by the certifier, and obtains a certificate.

What are the penalties for misuse of the term “organic?”
Any operation that knowingly sells or labels an agricultural product as “organic,” not in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Standards may be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 per violation and criminal sanctions based on violation of Federal laws governing fraud and false statements.

Must organic farmers use organic seeds?
The NOP Rule requires that organically produced and handled seeds be planted when such seed is commercially available for the variety. Annual transplants must always be organically grown unless the Secretary of Agriculture in response to a natural disaster or other major interruption issues a temporary variance. All seed used in organic production must be untreated, or treated only with substances (such as microbial products) that are on the National List. Farmers are required to use certified organic seed when it is commercially available. Commercial availability is based on ability to obtain the seed in an appropriate form, quality, or quantity, as reviewed by the certification agent. 

Must annual transplants also be organically produced?
Yes.

What is an Organic Systems Management Plan?
Organic certification requires an Organic Systems Management Plan, also known as an Organic Farm Plan or Organic Handling Plan. These documents identify who is responsible for the organic operation and describe the management and record keeping practices to monitor implementation of that plan. The plan serves as a contract between the operator and the certifier. Most certifiers assist operators in developing their plan by providing forms and guidance documents. Organic Systems Management Plans must be updated at least annually in order to maintain certified organic status.

How does an Organic Systems Management Plan relate to soil management?
Farmers are required to demonstrate that they use appropriate tillage and cultivation practices without negative impacts on soil structure, and manage crop nutrients and fertility using crop rotations, cover corps, and application of organic materials. There is also a requirement that soil organic matter be maintained or improved in a manner that does not contaminate crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or prohibited materials. The farmer must have a system for monitoring all practices and procedures, as well as records for all farm inputs, harvest products, and storage facilities. 

Where can I find out more about the NOP?
The standards are set and implemented by USDA through the regulations published at 7 CFR Part 205, and are amended periodically, based on recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board.  For more information see the NOP website at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop.