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How Foods Earn the USDA Organic Certification

Rachel Lark - October 31, 2023

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Organic food is generally considered safer and healthier than inorganic options. Grocery stores often charge more for products with the United States Department of Agriculture’s organic certification since they often have higher demand. Does that certification really hold the weight it deserves? Here’s what to know about the USDA’s process. 

USDA’s Definition of ‘Organic’

While people generally consider organic as completely naturally grown but that is often hard to achieve while keeping a thriving business. Here is what the USDA considers organic. 

Manufacturers must use practices that “foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials and conserve biodiversity.”

The National Organic Program 

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a division of the USDA that offers organic certification and sets guidance for farmers who want to earn the certification. An NOP-certified agent will need to oversee the certification process which must follow all of the regulations. 

Earning a USDA Organic Certification 

In order for produce to qualify for the stamp of approval, farms should meet required standards, including the following.

  • Crops are not grown with prohibited materials, including ionizing radiation, sewage drainage or genetic engineering. The land must not have these substances on them for at least three years before growing organic crops. 
  • Farmers manage crop nutrients and soil through tilling, crop rotations, cover crops and allowed materials. 
  • Weeds, pests and diseases are stopped with physical, mechanical or biological sources. For tough cases, they can use an approved botanical solution. 
  • Farmers must use organic seeds and stock. 

By limiting potential exposure to contaminants, producers can ensure they deliver the most natural products possible. 

Poultry and Livestock 

In order for animal products to meet the USDA organic standards, they must meet a separate set of requirements, including the following. 

  • Non Organic dairies must make the switch to organic within one year and remain that way. 
  • Farmers must feed livestock 100% organic products and approved vitamin or mineral supplements. 
  • Both dairy and slaughter animals must have organic management from their third trimester in-utero. Poultry must be from the second day of life. 
  • Animals must receive at least 30% of their feed or dry matter intake on pasture. 
  • Farmers must use preventative measures to keep animals healthy. They should not withhold treatment from a sick or injured animal. If they must use a prohibited substance to treat them, they cannot sell that animal as organic. 
  • All organic animals must have year-round access to the outdoors and only be confined when there are environmental or health considerations. 

Raising organic animals is vital to ensuring the products they produce are as well. 

Product Handling Standards 

Producing organic products isn’t enough to earn the USDA seal. The handling process must include the following.

  • Handlers cannot process organic products with inorganic ones or prohibited substances. 
  • If part of a product recipe, all agricultural products must be organically labeled if possible. 
  • Any non-agricultural product should be on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

Multi-Ingredient Products

There are many organic products used to create other products and those items could receive one of a few different labels. 

To still get the USDA certified organic seal, it must have at least 95% certified organic content. If there are at least 70% organic items, they could get the “made with” organic ingredients label. For products with fewer than that, producers can list the specific ingredient as organic but not the product as a whole.

Non Synthetic Substances 

When customers think of organic products, they often think of no other items involved in their production. However, some substances could be necessary to produce enough healthy items for mass selling. There are strict restrictions around what substances farmers can use. 

For crops and livestock, producers can use non synthetic (natural) substances as long as they are allowed via the guidelines. The USDA prohibits any synthetic substances from certified organic products. 

When handling products, nonagricultural nonsynthetic, synthetic or nonorganic substances must get approval via the National List. 


If a genetically modified material gets inadvertently placed in a product, it doesn’t threaten its organic status as long as its production meets the organic requirements. Agents will work with producers to resolve the issue so GMOs don’t continue to enter the product. 

The NOP does not have minimum GMO tolerance levels.

Changes in Organic Regulations

You might notice some updates from previous certified organic criteria. Recently, the USDA updated its organic regulations for the first time in 30 years. It impacted how producers grow, handle and sell the products. There are many new protective layers to keep the industry as safe and honest as possible. 

One of the largest changes is the Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule which significantly increases the amount of oversight producers see as they go through and maintain their certified status. 

There will be more on-sight inspections and training requirements for organic farmers and manufacturers. It also requires certification for organic businesses and imported products. Taking effect on March 20, 2023 and producers have a year to implement necessary changes. 

Applying for a USDA Organic Certification 

If you are a farmer or other producer interested in getting the USDA Organic Certification, there are steps you can take. 

  1. Implement practices to comply with the NOP regulations mentioned here and on the USDA website. 
  2. Contact a USDA-accredited agent and submit an application to them. 
  3. Allow an inspector to investigate your practices to ensure compliance with regulations. 
  4. The agent makes the determination based on the application and inspection information. 
  5. Receive your USDA organic certificate. 
  6. Participate in annual reviews to ensure you continue to meet the NOP standards. 

International companies can earn the certification as well, with a separate certification process. 

Earning a USDA Organic Certification

A USDA Organic certification assures consumers that you are taking the steps to provide organic products to meet their ethical or health needs. Maintaining the accreditation helps you stay accountable to your mission and provides transparency with your consumers. With the new regulations, producers are held to higher standards to produce the best quality organic products possible.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.