The demand for foods produced more “naturally” arose out of a response to the introduction of synthetic pesticides and herbicides in the 1940s and the resulting movement toward organic farming.    By the early 1970s, the need for standardized organic labeling became apparent to the western leaders of the organic movement who worked to pass laws and create certification standards and processes.  In 1973 the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organization was formed and in 1974, Oregon enacted the first organic state laws in the country.  During that same period, the Western Alliance was formed among organic activists in the three Pacific border states.  In 1985 the Organic Food Production Association of North America (OFPANA) was formed in Massachusetts and joined forces with the Western Alliance to work collaboratively on nationwide standards that would unify the language, practices, tools and certification requirements.  Ultimately these original trade associations became the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a national organization of over 1,500 members representing businesses across the organic supply chain that addresses all things organic, including food, fiber/textiles, personal care products, and new emerging sectors.

The first national legislation, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), was passed in 1990, creating the National Organic Program (NOP).  This legislation established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) which issued its first definition of organic agriculture in 1995.  By 2000 the USDA issued its final organic regulations, which became effective October 21, 2002, and the USDA Organic Seal was created to appear on products that were certified to meet the national regulations and standards. 

Organic Certification Requirements & Certifying Process

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) requires that organic products be “certified” by independent third party certifying organizations to assure that the required organic standards for growing and production are met and the resulting products are qualified to include the organic seal on their label.  Both the review and reporting process along with the agencies’ statuses as non-governmental bodies, provide for ethical review processes to assure there is no conflict of interest between the parties.

According to the USDA website, 80 certifying agents are currently accredited and authorized to certify operations to the USDA organic standards. Of these, 48 are based in the U.S. and 32 are based in foreign countries. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) directly accredits most certifying agents. 21 additional certifying agents are authorized through recognition agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments.

Here are a few of the USDA-accredited certifying agency labels that can be found on organic products. These labels can be seen on their own or in concert with the USDA Certified Organic Seal.

California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) – CCOF is one of the most recognized and trusted certifying agencies in North America. They certify growers, livestock producers, ingredient suppliers, processors, handlers, private labelers, retailers, and restaurants. In addition to certification services, CCOF supports and promotes the organic movement through the CCOF Trade Association and the non-profit CCOF Foundation. Founded in 1973 with 54 grower members, CCOF members now include more than 3,000 organic operations supplying 1,100 different organic crops, products, and services ensuring organic integrity from field to fork.

Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) International – OCIA is one of the world’s largest and oldest certifying agencies. It is a non-profit, member-owned agricultural organization dedicated to providing high-quality organic certification services and access to global organic markets. OCIA International serves thousands of organic farmers, processors and handlers in North, Central and South America, as well as Asia.

Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) – A leading non-profit certifying agency, educator and organic agriculture and products advocate, Oregon Tilth has helped lead the way on making organic agriculture a research-based approach to sustainable food production. Founded in 1974, Oregon Tilth, along with CCOF and others, played a role in the development of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) and helped found the Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI).

For a complete list of certifying agencies, you can click here.

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices which foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.   Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.   And, because they are grown in healthier, richer soil, organically produced foods tend to have more flavor and richer color from higher levels of phytochemicals, which also provide health benefits.

Organic standards defined by the USDA Organic Foods Production Act require:

  • Three years with no application of prohibited materials (no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms) prior to certification
  • No use of prohibited substances while certified, no sewage sludge, no irradiation
  • Proactive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation systems
  • Mandatory outdoor access for livestock, access to pasture for grass grazing animals including cows, sheep and goats
  • No antibiotics or hormones used
  • 100% organic feed

Why this matters:

Before the OFPA, standards and regulations for organic products were managed at the state level.  There were so many different and sometimes conflicting rules and means, retailers were challenged to manage and sign the product accurately and consumers were confused.  The national USDA seal eliminated this problem.  The seal assures consumers that a product meets a defined set of standards no matter where the ingredients are sourced or the product is manufactured.

Organic Label Claims Allowed Under the Law

Packed, processed products may contain 100% organic ingredients, or a mix of both organic and non-organic ingredients.  The NOP established the following requirements for label marketing statements on products with organic ingredients:

  • 100% Organic – May use the organic seal; all ingredients in the products must be certified organic
  • Organic – May use the organic seal; at least 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic
  • Made with Organic (specified ingredients or food groups) – May NOT use the organic seal; at least 70% of the ingredients must be certified organic
  • Products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients can list specific organic ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any claims on the front of the package nor use the organic seal.

Certified Organic Meat

The detailed requirements for raising animals that produce qualified products for organic claims vary among the different animals – poultry, cattle, goats, and sheep.  However, overall, the USDA NOP requires that organic livestock must be:

  • Produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge
  • Managed in a manner that conserves natural resources and biodiversity
  • Raised per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List)
  • Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program authorized certifying agent, meeting all USDA organic regulations
  • Generally, managed organically from the last third of gestation (mammals) or second day of life (poultry)
  • Allowed year-round access to the outdoors except under specific conditions (e.g., inclement weather)
  • Raised on certified organic land meeting all organic crop production standards
  • Raised per animal health and welfare standards
  • Fed 100% certified organic feed, except for trace minerals and vitamins used  to meet the animal’s nutritional requirements
  • Managed without antibiotics, added growth hormones, mammalian or avian byproducts,  or other prohibited feed ingredients (e.g., urea, manure, or arsenic compounds)

To determine if a farm complies with the USDA organic regulations, certifying agents review the farm’s written organic system plan and on-site inspection findings.

Certified Organic in the Body Care & Supplement Departments

The FDA does not define or regulate the term “organic” as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products.   If a cosmetic, body care product, or personal care product contains or is made up of agricultural ingredients and can meet the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing and labeling standards, it may be eligible to be certified under the NOP regulations.   Once certified, cosmetics, personal care products, and body care products are eligible for the same four organic labeling categories as all other agricultural products, based on their organic content and other factors.

Why this matters:

The word "organic" is not regulated on personal care product as it is on food products, unless the product is certified by the USDA NOP.  Due to this lack of regulation, many personal care products have the word "organic" in their brand name or otherwise on their product label; but, unless they are USDA certified, the main cleansing ingredients and preservatives are usually made with synthetic and petrochemical compounds.

Certified Organic Pet Food

In late 2008, the NOSB recommended changes to the organic regulations to include organic pet products that could be labeled consistently with organic labels on human food.   A key problem pet food manufacturers face is sourcing non-genetically engineered ingredients in the non-organic portion of the products.  Pet food is currently regulated by states as a subset of livestock regulations. Ingredients and additives permitted in pet food are regulated similarly to livestock feed. The NOSB recommended that the product composition requirements for organic pet food be similar to those for livestock, but that labeling categories be the same as for processed human food.   They also recommended that the eligible label claims for organic pet food match the same requirements for human food:  i.e. a minimum of 70% organic ingredients for a “made with organic” claim, and at least 95% organic content for an “organic” claim.

Certified Organic Retailers

It’s widely known that retailers who sell organic products are not required by the USDA to be certified organic operations.   Retailers who are not certified do, however, have the responsibility of preventing commingling and contamination of organic products with prohibited substances and of keeping records that show products marketed as organic have been correctly handled from production through delivery to the customer.   

Retailers may choose to become certified organic if they adhere to the operational standards and procedures required by the NOP.  This certification is based on site inspections by an organic certifying agency.  Retailers must:


  • Adhere to a comprehensive plan to protect organic products from contamination and commingling with non-organic product and non-organic cleaning supplies.
  • Keep documentation that tracks connections between the retailer and organic suppliers for five years.
  • Display organic product with proper and accurate signage.
  • Keep organic certificates on file for farms from whom the store buys directly.
  • Submit to an annual review of organic certification.

Why this matters:

Independent retailers may find that competitor retailers, such as Whole Foods, are certified organic.  Although becoming a certified organic retailer takes time and effort, it is one way for independent stores to demonstrate a higher standard to their customers and equal or exceed the standards of their competitors. 


Words to Remember


Certification is a process of verifying whether a cultivating or growing a product or ingredient, the operations, training, manufacturing, and/or physical plant meet a set of quality standards defined by an industry approved and recognized organization. A product or company may be certified if they conform to the standards and have the required documentation as proof.



National Organic Program, the name of the regulating mechanism in the US Department of Agriculture that administers and enforces the laws put forth in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990.



The National Organic Standards Board is the governing body of the NOP.



Foods that are grown, processed and packed according to a set of requirements intended to protect the farm from harmful practices and foods from adulteration once it has left the farm.

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