What Does Certified Organic Mean?

What does “Certified Organic” mean?  Who is in charge of organic certification?  How do companies, farms and products become certified?  Are products bearing the label “Organic” really 100% organic?  With the word organic popping up everywhere it’s time to understand the facts behind organic certification, standards, legislation, grassroots alternatives and labels.

Please keep in mind that the information contained in this article applies to food only.  The organic standards for personal care products (e.g., toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, etc.) and other non-agricultural products are not regulated at this time.  Buyer beware when it comes to personal care products with the word “organic” on their packaging – unless they are USDA certified the ingredients may very well be about as far from organic as you can imagine.

Organic Certification

Organic certification in the United States is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) sets the standards for certifying agencies to approve businesses wanting to sell organic products.  Entities wishing to market and sell organic products can select a USDA NOP Accredited Certifying Agent (ACA) to undergo the organic certification process.  In addition each individual state may also require approval for more restrictive organic requirements.

There are currently over 50 USDA Accredited Certifying Agents (ACAs) in the United States with 13 ACAs in California.  There are 42 foreign ACAs.  What this means in terms of product labeling is that you will find almost 100 different organic certification labels on the various products you purchase.  If you are buying an organic banana grown in Argentina, it may bear the seal of the foreign ACA along with the USDA Organic label.  If you live in Los Angeles and are shopping at a farmers’ market, any locally produced products labeled organic will have been certified by a California ACA under the USDA NOP standards.  Your local farmers’ organic produce may have been certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF – one of the United States’ first organic certification organizations), Quality Assurance International or by another California-based certifying agent.  For a complete list of  California ACAs click here.

USDA Organic Certification Standards

  • free of synthetic chemicals such as insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics and additives
  • free from irradiation and genetically modified organisms
  • agricultural products grown on land that has been free of prohibited substances for a period of three years
  • animals used for meat, eggs, milk or other animal products must be exclusively fed foods that are organically grown, may not be given antibiotics or hormones and must have access to outdoors
  • clean and sanitized harvesting and processing equipment throughout the process from harvest to finished, packaged product
  • detailed chain-of-handling records from the field through final sales
  • physical separation of certified organic products from non-organic products throughout the process of production
  • regular on-site inspections from USDA-approved inspectors to ensure compliance

Organic Legislation

The USDA Organic – National Organic Program (NOP) is the United States government program that develops, implements and administers national production, handling and labeling standards for organics.  The NOP was enacted in 2002 and is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990.

There are criticisms of organic legislation and certification.  Many farmers who are adamant about practicing sustainable organic farming believe that formal certification and its inevitable costs, paperwork and bureaucracy might ultimately drive independent organic farmers out of business.  There are also concerns that placing organic standards into a legal framework will result in lobbyists pushing for changes that are favorable to large-scale production and unfavorable to small-scale organic farmers and consumers.  If small local organic farmers are squeezed out as corporate producers take over, there is a real possibility that the organic standards enforced through USDA certification will degrade and undermine the quality of organic food.

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) Grassroots Certification

In response to concerns about organic legislation, a group of farmers worldwide created alternative organic certification programs.  These programs differ from the USDA’s NOP in that they minimize paperwork and certification fees and employ a peer-review inspection process that is typically a better fit for small-scale producers selling locally and directly to their customers.  Certified Naturally Grown is a non-profit organization offering certification programs tailored for small-scale, direct-market farmers that encourages the farmers’ commitment to healthy food and soils.  This alternative to USDA certified organic uses the NOP standards as a starting point but is not affiliated with the NOP.

Organic Labels

So how do you decipher organic packaging?  In the United States, the USDA defines levels of organic labels as follows:

100% organic – can only be used on products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods; permitted to display the USDA organic seal

organic – can be used on products made with at least 95% organic ingredients; permitted to display the USDA organic seal

made with organic ingredients – can be used on products made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients; may not display the USDA organic seal

What do you think about USDA Certification vs. Grassroots Certification?  How do you select your food?  Is the “Certified Organic” label important to you?  Tell us in the Comments.


  1. Thanks for the great article! This is a confusing topic to me that needed clearing up!


  1. […] What Does Certified Organic Mean? – EcoBuzz Los Angeles – Who is in charge of organic certification? … it may bear the seal of the foreign ACA along with the USDA Organic label. If you live in Los Angeles and are shopping at a farmers’ market, … The NOP was enacted in 2002 and is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act … […]

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