Organic Certification
Certification for Organic - 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 (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc) and genetically modified organisms; use of farmland that has been free from 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.
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. 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".
It is important to note that certification is essentially a marketing initiative, 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, although it represents certification to identical organic standards as its competitors.
Certification standards and organic laws do not affect existing agricultural policies or legislation.
The certification process - In order 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, three years. This is known as being in transition . Transitional crops are not considered fully organic. A farm already growing without chemicals may be certified without this delay.
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.
Certification and Product Labelling - The official seal of USDA certified organic foods - USDA organic seal The official seal of USDA certified organic foods. - Being able to put the word "organic" on a food product is a valuable marketing advantage in today's consumer market. Certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and make buying organics easy. However, the organic labelling made possible by certification itself usually requires explanation.
In the US, federal organic legislation defines three levels of organics. Products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labelled "100% organic". Products with 95% organic ingredients can use the word "organic". Both may also display the USDA organic seal. A third category, containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, can be labelled "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.
Certification around the world - In some countries, organic standards are formulated and overseen by the government. The United States, the European Union and Japan have comprehensive organic legislation, and the term "organic" may be used only by certified producers. In countries without organic laws, government guidelines may or may not exist, while certification is handled by non-profit organizations and private companies.
EU countries acquired comprehensive organic legislation with the implementation of the EU-Eco-regulation 1992. Certification is handled on the national level.
Certification In the United Kingdom, organic certification is handled by a number of organizations, of which the largest are the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers. All the certifying bodies are subject to the regulations of the UK Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS), which itself is bound by EU legislation.
Certification In Sweden, organic certification is handled by the private corporation KRAV.
Quality Assurance International is the largest private certifier of organic food systems.
In the US, the National Organic Program (NOP), was enacted as federal legislation in Oct. 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). Quality Assurance International (QAI), a private US corporation with a partner in Japan, Ecocert-QAI Japan Ltd., is the largest organic certification body in the United States.
One of the first organizations to carry out organic certification in North America was the California Certified Organic Farmers, founded in 1973.
In Canada, the government has published a national organic standard, but it is a guideline only; legislation is in process. Certification is provided by private sector organizations. In Quebec, provincial legislation provides government oversight of organic certification within the province, through the Quebec Accreditation Board ( Conseil D'Accrétation Du Quéc ).
In Japan, the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) was fully implemented as law in April, 2001.
In Australia, the organic certification system is administered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). As of 2006, there are seven AQIS-approved certifying organisations authorised to issue Organic Produce Certifcates, and in 2004 there were 2345 certified operators. 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.
Internationally, equivalency negotiations are underway, and some agreements are already in place, to harmonize certification between countries, facilitating international trade. There also international certification bodies, including members of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), and Ecocert. 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. Ecocert is the world's largest organic certification organization with offices in 20 countries, and operating in over 85 countries. They certify over 40,000 farms and companies worldwide.
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.
Obstacle to small independents - Originally, the organic food industry was built mainly by small, independent farmers, selling locally. Organic "certification" was a matter of trust, based on a direct relationship between farmer and consumer. Formal certification is viewed by its critics as a barrier to entry for these original producers, by burdening them with increased costs, paperwork, and bureaucracy. It also provides a legal framework which can be used to manipulate regulations, allowing lobbyists to push for amendments, inclusions and exceptions favorable to large-scale production. The feared result is "legally organic" products, produced in ways similar to current conventional food. With organic products sold through supermarket chains, high volume distribution channels would then favor large producers, and the small organic farmer would be effectively squeezed out. The pressures of certification on the small farmer producing for the local food market are real and significant, particularly for mixed vegetable production. For instance, certified organic seed is expensive, and the selection is limited: currently, organic seed generally costs three to five times that of uncertified seed, and the selection is limited to two or three varieties of each crop, compared to dozens of varieties in uncertified seed. Seed producers face the same constraints in certification as do organic farmers, however, unlike farmers, their market is primarily for uncertified seed, so supply could well lag far behind demand for some time. Also, the detailed record keeping formats, from planting to harvest, are usually designed for larger, single-crop harvests, and become onerous for farmers harvesting a dozen or more crops in small quantities on daily or weekly schedules. Balancing strict, rule-based certification with practical concerns such as these necessitates "case-by-case" exceptions for all but the biggest organic farmers to survive within the system. Regardless of the intentions, strict certification in practice greatly favors large-scale production.
Manipulation 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, or particular rules. For example, a complaint filed with the USDA in February 2004 against 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 labelling 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 labelling to personal care products; this complaint has not been refiled. -
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 without certification. Various alternative certification approaches, using terms like "authentic" and "natural" instead of "organic", are emerging. In the US, motivated by the cost and legal requirements of certification (as of Oct. 2002), the 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. -
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.
Organic food
Organic Volunteers
OCA Files Complaint with USDA's National Organic Program Against 'Organic Water' Scheme. Organic Consumers Association, 18-Feb-2004.
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. In August 2005
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European Commission: Organic Farming
USDA National Organic Program
UK Soil Association
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