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Basic Steps to USDA Organic Certification

An easy explanation of the organic certification process


The organic certification process is a bit different for everyone. The application process will vary due to operation type, how your certification agency does things, time constraints and other issues. However, there are some very general organic certification steps shown below that apply to all certification applicants and these basic steps are good to know.

Before you take a look at the steps below, you may want to read, Steps to Take Before You Get Certified Organic.If you're looking for a longer guide, see this step-by-step guide to certification.

1. Organic Certification Submission Step

The first step of applying for organic certification is locating an organic certifying agent. After choosing your agent, you'll obtain an application from your agent and fill it out. At this time, you'll also need to develop and write out your organic system plan (OSP) as required by § 205.201.

After completing both your application and OSP, you'll turn them in, along with any required fees, to your agent.

The National Organic Program (NOP) also notes that you are responsible for turning in a signed operator agreement or affidavit, identifying the responsible party and appropriate business structure, which could include, sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, corporation, or non-profit organization.

Also, if you've applied for organic certification before, you'll need to turn in when and where you applied along with the outcome of the application(s). Note that this is not an exhaustive list and other documents may be required by your agent. Learn more about writing your OSP below.

2. Organic Service Plan Review Step

After you turn in your application and OSP, your certifying agent will review it to make sure it meets NOP standards and regulations, including checking that all your inputs and/or ingredients meet NOP guidelines according to the National List and other NOP approved material source resources. After the review, your agent will let you know if your OSP is acceptable.

If your agent thinks additional information is required before the review can be completed, you'll need to submit it before you schedule your on-site inspection.

Note that during this review time, you don't have to, but you can choose to start implementing your OSP at your operation. Honestly, it's a good idea to implement your plan as soon as possible, because early implementation allows you to get used to running your operation organically.

3. Onsite Inspection Step

Once your operation has an application and OSP completed and approved, your agent will schedule an inspection of your operation. Note that your inspection is not a consultation visit and your inspector is not your certifying agent. By the time your inspection arrives, your operation is expected to be in full compliance and NOP does not allow inspectors to provide advice to the producer or handler during the inspection.

During the inspection, your inspector will check to make sure your operation is either already in compliance with NOP regulations or if it has the ability to become compliant. The inspector will also make sure that your OSP truly reflects your operation and make sure that no prohibited substances are being used.

If your operation is not in compliance in some way, your inspector may let you know during the inspection exit interview, which happens after the inspection. Also, you'll receive a copy of the on-site inspection report from your certifying agent.

See § 205.403 for a full run-down of the inspection process.

4. Inspection Report Evaluation Step

After the onsite inspection, your inspector will send the inspection report to your agent, who then has a reasonable amount of time to review the inspection report. After reviewing the report, your agent will then let you know if your operation is in (or not in) compliance with your OSP and NOP regulations based on the inspection findings.

If there are any problems with compliance, it's typical for your agent to make some suggestions about how your operation can meet compliance.

5. Certification Decision Step

Obviously the decision step is what every operation is waiting for, and it can go one of three ways:

  1. Your OSP and application are fully approved and your operation is granted organic certification.
  2. Your operation is not in total compliance due to minor, non-violative issues, but you're still granted conditional certification, with the understanding that the compliance problems will be fixed in a timely manner.
  3. Your application for organic certification is denied. See some reasons why your application would be denied and learn what you can do to solve this problem.

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