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 (List of countries with organic agriculture regulation), and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:
- avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives), irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
- avoidance of genetically modified seed;
- use of farmland that has been free from prohibited chemical inputs for a number of years (often, three or more);
- for livestock, adhering to specific requirements for feed, housing, and breeding;
- 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.
Certified organic foods are not necessarily pesticide-free, certain pesticides are allowed.
- 1 Purpose
- 2 Methods
- 3 Organic certification and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
- 4 International food standards
- 5 Regional variations
- 5.1 North America
- 5.2 Europe
- 5.3 Asia and Oceania
- 6 Issues
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
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.
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). There are financial assistance programs for qualifying certified operations.
- 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 follows a similar process. The focus is on the quality of 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 Guarantee Systems (PGS) represent an alternative 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".
Alternative certification options
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."
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.
Organic certification and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
Organic certification, as well as fair trade certification, has the potential to directly and indirectly contribute to the achievement of the MDG targets. With the growth of ethical consumerism in developed countries, imports of eco-friendly and socially certified produce from the poor in developing countries have increased, which could contribute towards the achievement of the MDGs. A study by Setboonsarng (2008) reveals that organic certification substantially contributes to MDG1 (poverty and hunger) and MDG7 (environmental sustainability) by way of premium prices and better market access, among others. This study concludes that for this market-based development scheme to broaden its poverty impacts, public sector support in harmonizing standards, building up the capacity of certifiers, developing infrastructure development, and innovating alternative certification systems will be required.
International food standards
The body Codex Alimentarius of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was established in November 1961. The Commission's main goals are to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the international food trade. The Codex Alimentarius is recognized by the World Trade Organization as an international reference point for the resolution of disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection. One of their goals is to provide proper Food labelling (general standard, guidelines on nutrition labelling, guidelines on labelling claims).
In the United States the situation is undergoing its own FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
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. In 2011 IFOAM introduced a new program - the IFOAM Family of Standards - that attempts to simplify harmonization. The vision is to establish the use of one single global reference (the COROS) to access the quality of standards rather than focusing on bilateral agreements.
Certcost was a European research project on certification of organic food. The project was supported by the European Commission and has been running from 2008-2011. The website will be available until 2016.
United States of America
In the United States, federal legislation defines three levels of organic foods. Products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled "100% organic," while only products with at least 95% organic ingredients may be labeled "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," but may not display the USDA Organic seal. 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 be advertised as "organic," but can list individual ingredients that are organic as such in the product's ingredient statement. Also, USDA ingredients from plants cannot be genetically modified.
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."
Also in the U.S., the Secretary of Agriculture promulgated regulations establishing the National Organic Program (NOP). The final rule was published in the Federal Register in 2000. 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 United States 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. Some retailers have their stores certified as organic handlers and processors to ensure organic compliance is maintained throughout the supply chain until delivered to consumers, such as Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers, a 60-year-old chain based in Colorado.
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. In Quebec, provincial legislation provides government oversight of organic certification within the province, through the Quebec Accreditation Board (Conseil D'Accréditation Du Québec).
Public organic certification
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 EU-wide label for organic food. It has been mandatory throughout the EU since July 2010. and has become compulsory after a two-year transition period.
In 2009 a new logo was chosen through a design competition and online public vote. 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.
|Country||Area (ha)||Percent (%)|
|Source: "Eurostat press release 80/2007"|
Private organic certification
Besides the public organic certification regulation EU-Eco-regulation in 1992, there are various private organic certifications available:
- Demeter International is the largest certification organization for biodynamic agriculture, and is one of three predominant organic certifiers. Demeter Biodynamic Certification is used in over 50 countries to verify that biodynamic products meet international standards in production and processing. The Demeter certification program was established in 1928, and as such was the first ecological label for organically produced foods.
- Bio Suisse established in 1981 is the Swiss organic farmer umbrella organization. International activities are mainly focused on imports towards Switzerland and don't support export activities.
Following private bodies certify organic produce: KEZ, o. p. s. (CZ-BIO-001), ABCert, AG (CZ-BIO-002) and BIOCONT CZ, s. r. o. (CZ-BIO-003). These bodies provide controlling of processes tied with issueing of certificate of origin. Controlling of compliancy (to (ES) no 882/2004 directive) is provided by government body ÚKZÚZ (Central Institute for Supervising and Testing in Agriculture)."9"|Source: "Information on organic produce of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic"
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 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 Bioland (1971), Biokreis (1979), Biopark (1991), Ecoland (1997), Ecovin (1985), Gäa e.V. (1989), Naturland (1981) and Bio Suisse (1981).
In Greece, organic certification is available from eight (8) organizations approved by EU. The major of them are BIOHELLAS and the DIO (Greek: Οργανισμός Ελέγχου και Πιστοποίησης Βιολογικών Προϊόντων - ΔΗΩ)
In Switzerland, products sold as organic must comply at least with the Swiss organic regulation (Regulation 910.18), and if labelled with the Bio Suisse label they have to comply with the (private) standards set by the Bio Suisse organisation.
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. UK certification bodies are required to meet the EU minimum organic standards for all member states; they may choose to certify to standards that exceed the minimums, as is the case with the Soil Association.
The farmland converted to produce certified organic food has seen a significant evolution in the EU15 countries, rising from 1.8% in 1998 to 4.1% in 2005. For the current EU25 countries however the statistics report an overall percentage of just 1.5% as of 2005. However the statistics showed a larger turnover of organic food in some countries, reaching 10% in France and 14% in Germany. In France 21% of available vegetables, fruits, milk and eggs were certified as organic. Numbers for 2010 show that 5.4% of German farmland has been converted to produced certified organic food, as has 10.4% of Swiss farmland and 11.7% of Austrian farmland. Non-EU countries have widely adopted the European certification regulations for organic food, to increase export to EU countries.
Asia and Oceania
In Australia, organic certification is performed by several organisations that are accredited by the Biosecurity section of the Department of Agriculture (Australia), formerly the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, under the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. All claims about the organic status of products sold in Australia are covered under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
In Australia, the The Organic Federation of Australia is the peak body for the organic industry in Australia and is part of the government's Organic Consultative Committee Legislative Working Group that sets organic standards.
Department of Agriculture accreditation is a legal requirement for all organic products exported from Australia. Export Control (Organic Produce Certification) Orders are used by the Department to assess organic certifying bodies and recognise them as approved certifying organisations. Approved certifying organisations are assessed by the Department for both initial recognition and on an at least annual basis thereafter to verify compliance.
In the absence of domestic regulation, DOA accreditation also serves as a 'de facto' benchmark for certified product sold on the domestic market. Despite its size and growing share of the economy "the organic industry in Australia remains largely self‐governed. There is no specific legislation for domestic organic food standardisation and labelling at the state or federal level as there is in the USA and the EU".
Australian approved certifying organisations
The Department has several approved certifying organisations that manage the certification process of organic and bio-dynamic operators in Australia. These certifying organisations perform a number of functions on the Department's behalf:
- Assess organic and bio-dynamic operators to determine compliance to the National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce and importing country requirements.
- Issue a Quality Management Certificate (QM Certificate) to organic operators to recognise compliance to export requirements.
- Issue Organic Produce Certificates (Export Documentation) for consignments of organic and bio-dynamic produce being exported.
As of 2015, there are seven approved certifying organisations:
- AUS-QUAL Pty Ltd (AUSQUAL)
- Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
- Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)
- NASAA Certified Organic (NCO)
- Organic Food Chain (OFC)
- Safe Food Production Queensland (SFQ)
- Tasmanian Organic-dynamic Producers (TOP)
There are 2567 certified organic businesses reported in Australia in 2014. They include 1707 primary producers, 719 processors and manufacturers, 141 wholesalers and retailers plus other operators.
The Chinese government refuses to recognise international standards and has no current certification equivalency agreements with other producing countries. Non-Chinese food producers are required to spend up to $50,000 (AUD) to be certified organic by Chinese authorities.
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." Organic food products manufactured and exported from India are marked with the India Organic certification mark issued by the APEDA. APEDA has recognized 11 inspection certification bodies, some of which are branches of foreign certification bodies, others are local certification bodies.
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.
As of 2014 the The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) had no organic certification process, but instead relied on international certification bodies; it does not track local producers who claim to have gotten organic certification.
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. 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.
Obstacles to small independent producers
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 view regulatory certification as a potential barrier to entry for small producers, by burdening them with increased costs, paperwork, and bureaucracy
In China, due to government regulations, international companies wishing to market organic produce must be independently certified. It is reported that "Australian food producers are spending up to $50,000 to be certified organic by Chinese authorities to crack the burgeoning middle-class market of the Asian superpower." Whilst the certification process is described by producers "extremely difficult and very expensive", a number of organic producers have acknowledged the ultimately positive effect of gaining access to the emerging Chinese market. For example, figures from Australian organic infant formula and baby food producer Bellamy's Organic indicate export growth, to China alone, of 70 per cent per year since gaining Chinese certification in 2008, while similar producers have shown export growth of 20 per cent to 30 per cent a year following certification
Peak Australian organic certification body, Australian Certified Organic, has stated however that "many companies have baulked at risking the money because of the complex, unwieldy and expensive process to earn Chinese certification." By comparison, equivalent certification costs in Australia are less than $2,000 (AUD), with costs in the United States as low as $750 (USD) for a similarly sized business.
Manipulative use of regulations
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.
In 2013 the Australia Consumer Competition Commission said that water can no longer be labelled as organic water because, based on organic standards, water cannot be organic and it is misleading and deceptive to label any water as such.
False Assurance of Quality
Erosion of standards
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. 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.
In the United States large food companies, have "assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods." Many members of standard-setting boards come from large food corporations. As more corporate members have joined, many nonorganic substances have been added to the National List of acceptable ingredients. The United States Congress has also played a role in allowing exceptions to organic food standards. In December 2005, the 2006 agricultural appropriations bill was passed with a rider allowing 38 synthetic ingredients to be used in organic foods, including 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."
- Association of Natural Biocontrol Producers
- List of countries with organic agriculture regulation
- List of organic food topics
- Organic farming
- Organic food
- Organic clothing
- Organic cotton
- Standards of identity for food
- Farm assurance
- Certified Naturally Grown
- Chitosan (Natural Biocontrol for Agricultural & Horticultural use qualified for organic use )
- Organic Council of Ontario
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- Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA National Organic Program: Final Rule (7 CFR Part 205; Federal Register, Vol. 65, No. 246, 21 December 2000)
- OCPP/Pro-Cert Canada Organic Agriculture & Food Standard (OC/PRO IS 350/150)
- The Australian Organic Industry: A Profile, 2004,  (pdf)
- European Commission: Organic Farming
- Organic Council of Ontario (Canada)
- Organic Standards Database to compare the EU regulation on organic farming, the National Organic Program (NOP) of the US and the guidelines for the production, processing, labeling and marketing of organically produced food of the Codex Alimentarius
- Organic Standards Database to compare the EU regulation on organic farming with other countries standards.