Organic certification

Organic certification
Mixed organic bean sprouts

Organic certification is a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, [food] processors, retailers and restaurants.

Requirements vary from country to country, and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:

  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances(e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of biosolids;
  • use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
  • maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
  • undergoing periodic on-site inspections.

In some countries, certification is overseen by the government, and commercial use of the term organic is legally restricted. Certified organic producers are also subject to the same agricultural, food safety and other government regulations that apply to non-certified producers.


Purpose of certification

Organic certification addresses a growing worldwide demand for organic food. It is intended to assure quality and prevent fraud, and to promote commerce. While such certification was not necessary in the early days of the organic movement, when small farmers would sell their produce directly at farmers' markets, as organics have grown in popularity, more and more consumers are purchasing organic food through traditional channels, such as supermarkets. As such, consumers must rely on third-party regulatory certification.

For organic producers, certification identifies suppliers of products approved for use in certified operations. For consumers, "certified organic" serves as a product assurance, similar to "low fat", "100% whole wheat", or "no artificial preservatives".

Certification is essentially aimed at regulating and facilitating the sale of organic products to consumers. Individual certification bodies have their own service marks, which can act as branding to consumers—a certifier may promote the high consumer recognition value of its logo as a marketing advantage to producers. Most UK certification bodies operate organic standards that meet the UK government's minimum requirements.[citation needed] Some certification bodies, such as the Soil Association,[citation needed] certify to higher standards.[citation needed]

Third party certification process

To certify a farm, the farmer is typically required to engage in a number of new activities, in addition to normal farming operations:

  • Study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
  • Compliance — farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
  • Documentation — extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
  • Planning — a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
  • Inspection — annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
  • Fee — an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400–$2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).
  • Record-keeping — written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.

In addition, short-notice or surprise inspections can be made, and specific tests (e.g. soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested.

For first-time farm certification, the soil must meet basic requirements of being free from use of prohibited substances (synthetic chemicals, etc.) for a number of years. A conventional farm must adhere to organic standards for this period, often, two to three years. This is known as being in transition. Transitional crops are not considered fully organic.

Certification for operations other than farms is similar. The focus is on ingredients and other inputs, and processing and handling conditions. A transport company would be required to detail the use and maintenance of its vehicles, storage facilities, containers, and so forth. A restaurant would have its premises inspected and its suppliers verified as certified organic.

Participatory certification

Participatory Guarantee Systems are locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange[1] (IFOAM definition, 2008).

Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) represent an alternative[2] to third party certification, especially adapted to local markets and short supply chains. They can also complement third party certification with a private label that brings additional guarantees and transparency. PGS enable the direct participation of producers, consumers and other stakeholders in:

  • the choice and definition of the standards
  • the development and implementation of certification procedures
  • the certification decisions

Participatory Guarantee Systems are also referred to as “participatory certification”.[3]

Certification and product labeling

In some countries, organic standards are formulated and overseen by the government. The United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have comprehensive organic legislation, and the term "organic" may be used only by certified producers. Being able to put the word "organic" on a food product is a valuable marketing advantage in today's consumer market, but does not guarantee the product is legitimately organic. Certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and make buying organics easy. However, the organic labeling made possible by certification itself usually requires explanation. In countries without organic laws, government guidelines may or may not exist, while certification is handled by non-profit organizations and private companies.

Internationally, equivalency negotiations are underway, and some agreements are already in place, to harmonize certification between countries, facilitating international trade. There are also international certification bodies, including members of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) working on harmonization efforts. Where formal agreements do not exist between countries, organic product for export is often certified by agencies from the importing countries, who may establish permanent foreign offices for this purpose.

United States of America

In the US, federal organic legislation defines three levels of organics. Products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled "100% organic". Products with at least 95% organic ingredients can use the word "organic". Both of these categories may also display the USDA organic seal. A third category, containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, can be labeled "made with organic ingredients". In addition, products may also display the logo of the certification body that approved them. Products made with less than 70% organic ingredients can not advertise this information to consumers and can only mention this fact in the product's ingredient statement. Similar percentages and labels apply in the EU.

In the U.S., the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 “requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which identifies synthetic substances that may be used, and the nonsynthetic substances that cannot be used, in organic production and handling operations.”[4]

Also in the U.S., the National Organic Program (NOP), was enacted as federal legislation in October 2002. It restricts the use of the term "organic" to certified organic producers (excepting growers selling under $5,000 a year, who must still comply and submit to a records audit if requested, but do not have to formally apply). Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One of the first organizations to carry out organic certification in North America was the California Certified Organic Farmers, founded in 1973.


In Canada, certification was implemented at the federal level on June 30, 2009. Mandatory certification is required for agricultural products represented as organic in import, export and inter-provincial trade, or that bear the federal organic logo.[5] In Quebec, provincial legislation provides government oversight of organic certification within the province, through the Quebec Accreditation Board (Conseil D'Accréditation Du Québec).


EU countries acquired comprehensive organic legislation with the implementation of the EU-Eco-regulation 1992. Supervision of certification bodies is handled on the national level. In March 2002 the European Commission issued a europeanwide label for organic food however for most of the countries it was not able to replace existing national product labels. It was relaunched in 2009 with a design competition for a new logo and the final logo was chosen through a public vote online.[6][7]

European Organic Farmland in 2005
Country Area (ha) Percent (%)
Belgium 22,994 1.7
Czech Republic 254,982 7.2
Cyprus 2 1.1
Denmark 134,129 5.2
Finland 147,587 6.5
France 560,838 2
Germany 807,406 4.7
Greece 288,737 7.2
Hungary 128,576 2
Ireland 34,912 0.8
Italy 1,069,462 8.4
Latvia 118,612 7
Lithuania 64,544 2.3
Luxembourg 3,158 * 2.4
Malta 14 0.1
Netherlands 48,765 2.5
Austria 360,369 11
Poland 82,730 * 2.4
Portugal 233,458 6.3
Sweden 222,268 6.2
Switzerland 11
Slovakia 90,206 4.8
Slovenia 23,499 4.8
Spain 807,569 3.2
United Kingdom 608,952 3.8
EU Total 6,115,465 3.9
Source: "Eurostat press release 80/2007"

The European organic food label has been mandatory throughout the EU since July 2010.[8] Originally it was planned to replace the old national organic labels but it was finally decided to allow for a transition period where both the EU label and the national labels may be used to mark organic food. The new logo is a green rectangle that shows twelve stars (from the European flag) placed such that they form the shape of a leaf in the wind. Unlike earlier labels no words are presented on the label lifting the requirement for translations referring to organic food certification.

In the United Kingdom, organic certification is handled by a number of organizations, regulated by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), of which the largest are the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers.

In Sweden, organic certification is handled by the organisation with members such as farmers, processors, trade and also consumer, environmental and animal welfare interests.[9]

In Ireland, organic certification is available from the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association

In Greece, organic certification is available from eight (8) organizations approved by EU.[10] The major of them are BIOHELLAS and the DIO (Greek: Οργανισμός Ελέγχου και Πιστοποίησης Βιολογικών Προϊόντων - ΔΗΩ)[1]

In France, organic certification was introduced in 1985. It has established a green-white logo of "AB - agriculture biologique". The certification for the AB label fulfills the EU regulations for organic food. The certification process is overseen a public institute ("Agence française pour le développement et la promotion de l'agriculture biologique" usually shortended to "Agence bio") established in November 2001. The actual certification authorities include a number of different institutes like Aclave, Agrocert, Ecocert SA, Qualité France SA, Ulase, SGS ICS.

In Belgium, a similar process as in France is being used where certification of the "Biogarantie" label is overseen by the public "association sans but lucratif" (ASBL) administration. This administration does exist since 27. June 1921 and it was reformed on 2. May 2002 to take over the new responsibilities of the label certification.

In Germany the national label was introduced in September 2001 following in the footsteps of the political campaign of "Agrarwende" (agricultural major shift) led by minister Renate Künast of the Greens party. This campaign was started after the mad-cow disease epidemic in 2000. The effects on farming are still challenged by other political parties. The national "Bio"-label in its hexagon green-black-white shape has gained wide popularity - in 2007 there were 2431 companies having certified 41708 products. The popularity of the label is extending to neighbouring countries like Austria, Switzerland and France.

In the German-speaking countries there have been older non-government organizations that had issued labels for organic food long before the advent of the EU organic food regulations. Their labels are still used widely as they significantly exceed the requirements of the EU regulations. An organic food label like "demeter" from Demeter International has been in use since 1928 and this label is still regarded as providing the highest standards for organic food in the world. Other active NGOs include Biokreis, Bioland, Biopark, Ecoland, Ecovin, Gäa e.V. and Naturland.

The farmland converted to produce certified organic food has seen a signification evolution in the EU15 rising from 1.8% in 1998 to 4.1% in 2005. For the current EU25 however the statistics do report an overall percentage of just 1.5% as of 2005. Other than the percentage of farmland the statistics show a much larger percentage of organic food in terms of turnover reaching 10% in France and 14% in Germany. Vegetables, fruits, milk and eggs have reached a percentage of 21% to be certified organic food in France. Numbers of 2010 show that 5.4% of farmland in Germany have been converted to produced certified organic food, Switzerland reaches 10.4% and Austria rises to 11.7% of the farmland.[11] Non-EU countries have widely adopted the European certification regulations for organic food, to increase export chances to EU countries.

In other countries

In Japan, the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) was fully implemented as law in April 2001. This was revised in November 2005 and all JAS certifiers were required to be re-accredited by the Ministry of Agriculture.

In Australia, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) is the controlling body for organic certification because there are no domestic standards for organic produce within Australia. Currently the government only becomes involved with organic certification at export, meaning AQIS is the default certification agency. Although there is no system for monitoring the labeling of organic produce sold within Australia, this primarily affects the retail public. Commercial buyers for whom this is an issue have simply taken the export system as a de facto standard and are willing to pay premium prices for produce from growers certified under the National schemes. Although it is voluntary for domestic product to adhere to the AQIS standard when claiming the product as "organic", it is mandatory for any product making claims to certified organic, to be verifiable as it being certified organic. As of 2010, there are seven AQIS-approved certifying organisations, they are AUS-QUAL Limited, Australian Certified Organic, Bio-Dynamic Research Institute, NASAA Certified Organic, Safe Food Productions Queensland, Tasmanian Organic-dynamic Producers these organisations are authorised to issue Organic Produce Certificates on behalf of AQIS. In 2004 there were 2345 certified operators in Australia. There are some private organic standards that do not meet the export act and as such these products and/or ingredients are not eligible to be exported from Australia as they are not in compliance with the Organic Orders and/or related export legislation.

The largest importer of Australia's organic produce (by weight) is Japan (33.59%), followed by the UK (17.51%), France (10.51%), and New Zealand (10.21%). The largest certifier of organic products is Australian Certified Organic, which is a subsidiary of Biological Farmers Australia, the largest organic farmers' collective in the country. There is another organic farmer's collective in Australia called the Organic Federation of Australia.

In India, APEDA regulates the certification of organic products as per National Standards for Organic Production. "The NPOP standards for production and accreditation system have been recognized by European Commission and Switzerland as equivalent to their country standards. Similarly, USDA has recognized NPOP conformity assessment procedures of accreditation as equivalent to that of US. With these recognitions, Indian organic products duly certified by the accredited certification bodies of India are accepted by the importing countries."[2]

In China, the China Green Food Development Center awards two Standards: A and AA; while the former standard does permit some use of synthetic agricultural chemicals, the latter is more stringent.[12]

Certification issues

Organic certification is not without its critics. Some of the staunchest opponents of chemical-based farming and factory farming practices also oppose formal certification. They see it as a way to drive independent organic farmers out of business, and to undermine the quality of organic food.[13] Other organizations such as the Organic Trade Association work within the organic community to foster awareness of legislative and other related issues, and enable the influence and participation of organic proponents.

Obstacle to small independents

Originally, in the 1960s through the 1980s, the organic food industry was composed of mainly small, independent farmers, selling locally. Organic "certification" was a matter of trust, based on a direct relationship between farmer and consumer. Critics[14] view regulatory certification as a potential barrier to entry for small producers, by burdening them with increased costs,[15] paperwork, and bureaucracy[16]

Manipulation of regulations

Critics of formal certification also fear an erosion of organic standards. Provided with a legal framework within which to operate, lobbyists can push for amendments and exceptions favorable to large-scale production, resulting in "legally organic" products produced in ways similar to current conventional food.[17] Combined with the fact that organic products are now sold predominantly through high volume distribution channels such as supermarkets, the concern is that the market is evolving to favor the biggest producers, and this could result in the small organic farmer being squeezed out.

Manipulation of certification regulations as a way to mislead or outright dupe the public is a very real concern. Some examples are creating exceptions (allowing non-organic inputs to be used without loss of certification status) and creative interpretation of standards to meet the letter, but not the intention, of particular rules. For example, a complaint filed with the USDA in February 2004 against Bayliss Ranch, a food ingredient producer and its certifying agent, charged that tap water had been certified organic, and advertised for use in a variety of water-based body care and food products, in order to label them "organic" under US law. Steam-distilled plant extracts, consisting mainly of tap water introduced during the distilling process, were certified organic, and promoted as an organic base that could then be used in a claim of organic content. The case was dismissed by the USDA, as the products had been actually used only in personal care products, over which the department at the time extended no labeling control. The company subsequently adjusted its marketing by removing reference to use of the extracts in food products. Several months later, the USDA extended its organic labeling to personal care products; this complaint has not been refiled.[18]

In December 2005, the 2006 agricultural appropriations bill was passed with a rider allowing 38 synthetic ingredients to be used in organic foods. Among the ingredients are food colorings, starches, sausage and hot-dog casings, hops, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, and gelatin. This allowed Anheuser-Busch in 2007 to have its Wild Hop Lager certified organic "even though [it] uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides."[19][20]

Misrepresentation of the term organic

The word organic is central to the certification (and organic food marketing) process, and this is also questioned by some. Where organic laws exist, producers cannot use the term legally without certification. To bypass this legal requirement for certification, various alternative certification approaches, using currently undefined terms like "authentic" and "natural", are emerging. In the US, motivated by the cost and legal requirements of certification (as of Oct. 2002), the private farmer-to-farmer association, Certified Naturally Grown, offers a "non-profit alternative eco-labelling program for small farms that grow using USDA Organic methods but are not a part of the USDA Certified Organic program."[21]

In the UK, the interests of smaller-scale growers who use 'natural' growing methods are represented by the Wholesome Food Association, which issues a symbol based largely on trust and peer-to-peer inspection.

A related concern holds that certification is replacing consumer education, and this goes against the essential, holistic nature of organic farming. By reducing complex issues and regulations to a simple, convenient certified organic label, consumers may more easily ignore the principles and practices behind organics, leaving the definition of organic farming and organic food open to manipulation.[citation needed]

See also


Citations and notes

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Text copied from "National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances". Agricultural Marketing Service. Retrieved 15 June 2011. 
  5. ^ Organic Food and Farming Certification Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). May 1, 2002.
  6. ^ European Commission » Agriculture and Rural Development » Organic Farming: Questions and Answers
  7. ^ link EU organic logo vote
  8. ^ Commission Regulation (EC) No 889/2008 of 5 September 2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products with regard to organic production, labelling and control
  9. ^
  10. ^ List of bodies or public authorities in charge of inspection provided for in Article 15 of Council Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91
  11. ^ EU-Biosiegel mit Kontrollen und Codeangaben nano, 3sat, 1. July 2010
  12. ^ "China's Organic Revolution" Paull, J. (2007) Journal of Organic Systems, 2(1) 1-11
  13. ^ Omnivore's Dilemma
  14. ^ Meirelles, Laércio. "Certification of Organic Products". Central Ecologico. Retrieved 1 September 2011. 
  15. ^ "National import regulations and the fact that the international certification bodies charge high fees for assessing and certifying farmers tend to drive development towards agribusiness, with plantations run by major multinational companies. Therefore a more local system for trade in farm products and their certification brings a range of advantages for farmers(...)."
  16. ^ Ifad.(2003)The Adoption of Organic Agriculture Among Small Farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean.Thematic Evaluation.
  17. ^ "Purity of Federal 'Organic' Label Is Questioned" article by Kimberly Kindy and Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post July 3, 2009
  18. ^ "OCA Files Complaint with USDA's National Organic Program Against 'Organic Water' Scheme". Organic Consumers Association, 18-Feb-2004. Retrieved 4-Mar-2006.
    The USDA decision was summarized in a formal letter dated 9-Mar-2005: USDA Final Decision 030905. Retrieved 19-Apr-2006.
    In August 2005, the USDA did extend NOP coverage to non-food products: "Organic Consumers Association: USDA Yields in Battle Over Access of Personal Care to National Organic Program; Organic Non-Food Products Qualify, Says USDA". Retrieved 21-Apr-2006.
  19. ^ "Congress negates changes to organic standards". BNET. December 2005.
  20. ^ Scott J. Wilson. "'Organic' food rule could have up to 38 loopholes". Los Angeles Times. June 10, 2007.
  21. ^ [Certified Naturally Grown]. Retrieved 4-Mar-2006.


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