USDA Organic Certification Process and How It Benefits the Consumer

With the rising health and wellness movement evolving across the United States, the word “organic” has become quite the buzzword. As this term has moved to the forefront of consumers’ minds, the perpetual tendency for retailers to rely on it has taken away from its meaning.

Shoppers are constantly being served advertisements, emphasizing “organic” and “natural” products without having the opportunity to fully understand what this title entails. To help clear up any confusion, we’re here to shed some light on the certification process for US produce. By getting to the root of what it means for a product to be classified as organic, consumers will then be able to see the benefits of such in a clear and compelling way.

What is the USDA and its Role in Organic Farming?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a department of the federal government in charge of overseeing farming and food. Their responsibilities range from organizing subsidies for farmers to ensuring all commercially grown produce is safe for consumption.

As the key purveyors of produce quality in the United States, they are responsible for denoting and enforcing the legitimacy of organic practices. The process to become USDA certified organic is a very involved one, but it has helped maintain the significance of receiving such a title.

Under the USDA, produce from any given farm can be certified, so long as the farmers utilize natural procedures throughout the entire process, they contribute to properly maintaining the soil, and keep up with pest and weed control in an effort to conserve biological diversity.

Before giving out the USDA organic certification, the department will thoroughly review the growing and production practices of the farm to verify that they fall in line with the established requirements.

The Process of Getting Verified

The organic certification process can be broken down into 5 general steps.

Step 1: Develop an organic system plan.

This proposal clearly states how the producer does, and will continue to, comply with the established regulations of organic farming. By creating this framework, the growers are laying the foundation of the certification process.

Since every farm is different, the USDA needs to understand exactly how the operation runs to ensure that the produce is being grown in a truly organic way. This plan does not just analyze growing practices but also accounts for stages such as tilling and transporting.

In order to move forward, this plan needs to define the specific monitoring and recordkeeping systems in place to ensure that farming conditions will be continually observed, even after the initial certification process is complete.

Step 2:  Implement the organic system plan and have it reviewed by a certifying agent.  

Once the organic framework has been brought into fruition, an accredited entity from the USDA will be assigned to review it. These agents act on behalf of the USDA’s organic produce guidelines and are responsible for verifying if the farming practices meet organic standards. 

Step 3:  Receive the inspection.  

Every farm that applies to be certified will have an on-site visit by a certifying agent. This inspection will provide the USDA a thorough look into the inner workings of the operation in order to make an informed decision. 

During the visit, the agent will look at every aspect of the process in great detail. Starting with the quality of the soil used to grow the crops, the integrity of the seeds, and the methods in place to facilitate growth, the inspection will focus on verifying that the plants are in fact being grown through natural measures. 

The agent will also take a look at how the produce is harvested, stored, and ultimately transported to retailers as these practices must also fall in line with organic requirements. 

Step 4: A certifying agent will review the inspection report. 

Following the visit, the inspector will present the findings from the on-site visit to a certifying agent. These observations are then compared to the organic system plan that was filed during the first step of the process. This allows the USDA to verify that sustainable organic practices are realistic for the specific farm. 

In addition, the degree of risk is evaluated. The certifying agent will look at the potential for contamination or the unauthorized introduction of prohibited materials and decide if the risk is acceptable or not. Working off of all the data, the inspector will then put all of the information into a file that is then given to the certifying agent to review. 

Step 5: Receive notification of the decision.

If all the findings align with the rules and regulations, the certifying agent will issue an organic certificate to the operation. With this title, the farm can legally begin selling their products under the title of “certified organic”.

Once the title is secured, it must be consistently maintained. To ensure organic standards are still being met, an inspection will be done at least once a year to renew the certification.

What this Means for Consumers

Now we’re left with the big question: why is this so important to consumers. 

To sum it up, a USDA certification offers full transparency and gives you the confidence in knowing that your produce is truly organic. This allows you to enjoy your produce without having to worry that you are encountering harmful chemicals or unsustainable environmental practices.  

In the modern age, we’re seeing a large shift in the way shoppers choose to spend their money. Many consumers are taking a stand with their dollar and using it to support what they believe in. Due to the involved nature of attaining a USDA certification, you, as the consumer, can feel empowered knowing exactly what farming practices you are supporting. 

As a consumer, when you see that USDA certification label, you can be certain that you are not being intentionally misled by a retailer. 

If organic farming practices mean a lot to you (and they should!) look for the USDA certification on the produce you are purchasing. You’ll know what you’re getting is truly grown organically.

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