National Organic Program

Kansas_Summer_Wheat_and_Storm_PanoramaThe required three-year transition to convert a conventional field to organic can be a deterrent for some would-be organic farmers.  Those 36 long, long months often put the farmer in the worst of both worlds: the land must be managed organically, but the crop must be marketed as conventional.


The higher cost of organic products might lead consumers to reach for the cheaper conventional version, even if they would prefer to buy organic.  We don’t have to know all of the reasons why organic products are more expensive than their conventional counterparts; basic economics tells us that demand far exceeds supply.


Considering the two sides of the organic market mentioned above, and that the mission of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is to create marketing opportunities for agricultural products and ensure the quality and availability of wholesome food, it’s not surprising that the USDA is rolling out a formalized transitional organic option, called the National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP).  The first step is for certifying agencies get accredited to be able to offer the new, standardized transitional certification.  According to AMS’s January 11 news release,

Continue Reading Land in Transition:  A “New” Certification Option? 

Recognizing that “certifying agents have interpreted the requirements for calculating the percent of organic ingredients differently,” the USDA recently published its draft guidance “Calculating the Percentage of Organic Ingredients in Multi-Ingredient Products (NOP 5037).”  This draft guidance seeks to clarify section 205.302 of the organic regulations, which has apparently been inconsistently applied by certifiers.

Some things to note from a first read of the draft guidance:

  • The draft guidance clarifies that, in the case of a multi-ingredient product, a “100% organic” final product is only possible if ALL of the multi-ingredient ingredients (I guess you can call them “sub ingredients”) are confirmed to be 100% organic.
  • Keep in mind that:  AN ORGANIC LABELING CATEGORY IS NOT THE SAME AS PERCENTAGE OF ORGANIC INGREDIENTS (except, of course, in the “100% organic” labeling category) and the “Organic” labeling category is only guaranteed as 95% organic content.
  • So, when determining percentage of organic of product to be certified, you must account for exact organic content in each multi-ingredient ingredient used in the final product.
  • If you cannot account for the exact organic content, you must default to the 95% or 70% labeling category for multi-ingredient ingredients.

Continue Reading Open for Comment: Draft Guidance on Organic Product Calculations

One of the most common questions we get asked is “How can I use the organic seal to market my certified-organic products without running afoul of the organic regulations?”  Until today, that question didn’t have a clear-cut answer, but thanks to a new Fact Sheet published by the USDA, we now have more informed answers for our clients on this front.

In a nutshell, like so many things in this arena, any marketing materials should be submitted to the operation’s accredited certifying agency for review and approval.  In addition, the Fact Sheet reiterates the touchstone inquiry for operations and certifiers:  Is the seal is being “used to misrepresent nonorganically produced products as organic.”  If you can’t answer that question with a no, you may be in violation of the regulations.

While we’d like to see even more guidance in this area, this is a good start and hopefully a sign of more to come!


the_usda_organic_seal_articleThis week, HighQuest Group held its inaugural “Organic and Non-GMO Forum” in conjunction with the 10th annual Oilseed and Grain Trade Summit, and Women in Agribusiness Summit.

This exceptional forum addressed topics of interest to all stakeholders in the agriculture industry and the key takeaway was clear:  The demand for certified organic U.S.-grown products exceeds supply in nearly every sector!  From a detailed presentation by Kellee James of Mercaris on market trends, supply chain demands, and organic market prices, to a spirited panel addressing labeling and consumer-driven challenges in the organic and non-GMO space, this forum is sure to become a regular event.  Thanks to the sponsors of this event and be sure to check them out along with the agenda and join us at the forum next time!

combine_images“Got Milk” and “Beef It’s What’s for Dinner” are just two of the now iconic advertising slogans which resulted from USDA mandatory checkoff programs. Following the Organic Trade Association’s proposal to the USDA, a mandatory checkoff may be coming to the organic industry (a copy of the OTA’s proposal to the USDA is available here). “The organic industry in America is thriving and maturing, but it is at a critical juncture,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA, said in a statement. The meaning of USDA’s organic seal is not clear to many consumers and organic production is “not keeping pace with the robust demand,” Bacha said. “An organic check-off program would give organic stakeholders the opportunity to collectively invest in research, build domestic supply and communicate the value of the organic brand to advance the entire industry to a new level.” Continue Reading Got Organic? Organic Checkoff Program Moving Forward

Elizabeth Rakola, Organic Policy Advisor for the USDA.Here is part 2 of Melody Meyer’s interview with USDA Organic Policy Advisor Betsy Rakola via Organic Matters.  (Part 1 is available here). Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods, a leading independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods and related products.  Thanks, Melody for allowing us to repost!

What challenges do you hope to address for the organic community?

Products that are locally produced and not certified organic continue to be an issue.  We are devising new strategies to provide outreach and information, especially at farmers markets, to producers to ensure they know the organic requirements. This is where the NOP sees the majority of complaints on non-compliance – producers making the organic claim without the certification. The end goal is to uphold the integrity of the organic seal, and make it easier for small producers to come  certificated organic.

We need to increase the number of certified organic operations because, as you know, domestic supply issues are acute right now. The supplies aren’t there to meet the current demand and through growth we can provide more opportunities and better options for American consumers looking for a vast array of organic products year-round. We have an internal goal to increase the number of certified organic operations. We currently have 18,500 certified entities and the market is expected to grow 12-15% per year, so perhaps we mimic that growth. This of course doesn’t capture the growth of new organic acres.  The producer survey can help us bridge that knowledge gap so USDA can help organic production grow. Continue Reading An Interview with Betsy Rakola: A focus on transitioning farmers and organic acreage. Part 2

Elizabeth Rakola, Organic Policy Advisor for the USDA.The following interview with USDA Organic Policy Advisor Betsy Rakola comes via Melody Meyer’s wonderful blog, Organic Matters.  Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods, a leading independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods and related products.  Thanks, Melody for allowing us to repost!

Just before the MOSES conference I was lucky enough to catch Betsy Rakola, USDA Organic Policy Advisor, for a chat. It was exciting because Betsy took the role just last August. She also serves as the chair of USDA’s Organic Working Group. This position was created by Secretary Tom Vilsack two years ago, and it’s the first of its kind at USDA. Now it is a permanent position so the focus on organic is here to stay. Betsy is no stranger to the National Organic Program and her commitment to growing organic agriculture was evident in every answer.

Tell me about your position and what do you hope to achieve in it?

I advise the office of the Secretary of Agriculture at the USDA so the department is up to date on the issues and opportunities for organic agriculture. I also coordinate the USDA Organic Working Group to make sure that organic farmers are represented in all of our programs and services across the department! It’s a big job to work with all the interagency teams.

I bring the organic perspective to broader discussions, such as how it relates to small and beginning farmers and ranchers or our local and regional sectors. I am working to implement many of the organic provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill that support this $35 billion industry!

I worked to develop the website where we now have a one-stop-shop with a dedicated organic portal that we hope has information useful to everybody. For instance you will find information on research, programs for universities and an Organic Literacy Initiative. The latter is an educational program that over 30,000 USDA employees have already completed!  This Organic 101 and 201 course explains the basics on what organic is and what it means.  Even the consumer or general public can access the course, and learn more about what the organic label means.  We especially want farmers and ranchers to have the resources they need so we can fulfill the USDA’s strategic goal to increase the number of certified operations!

Tell me more about the Organic Working Group.

The Organic Working Group is an interagency group that has five teams based on five themes; data, research, regulatory reciprocity (which means getting in sync and reducing paperwork), training and increasing the organic sector. Secretary Vilsack outlined these themes in his 2013 guidance to the USDA on organic agriculture, and I bring these areas of focus together at the USDA. This assures that every agency is working to support organic farmers, ranchers, and handlers. Continue Reading An Interview with Betsy Rakola: A focus on transitioning farmers and organic acreage. Part 1

AgreementA judge I very much respect once told me that a successful mediation is one in which the dispute gets settled and while no one leaves happy, everyone can look themselves in the mirror the next morning and be glad that the dispute is over.  He makes a good point. In litigation, two problematic things happen: (1) when the dust settles at the end of a trial or hearing, there is a clear winner and a clear loser; and (2) the people invested in the fight don’t get to decide who wins and who loses. Continue Reading Mediation of NOP Disputes

D.C._Court_of_AppealsIn our last post, we discussed the procedural requirements necessary to pursue an appeal of an adverse action taken by the NOP, a State organic program, or an organic certification agency.  To greatly over simplify, the procedural review of an appeal looks at two primary issues:

  • Does the appeal itself satisfy the NOP’s regulatory process; and
  • Was the adverse action appealed from taken in compliance with the NOP’s requirements.

Put another way, procedural review doesn’t consider whether the adverse action was right or wrong, but rather focuses on whether the action was taken in accordance with the proper steps, and whether the appellant followed the appropriate steps to appeal that action. The NOP’s substantive review of an appeal examines whether the rules were correctly applied; that is, whether the adverse action was an appropriate application of the NOP’s rules and regulations.  Continue Reading Substantive Review of NOP Appeals and the Resolution of Appeals

Doh“I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterwards.”
― Rudyard KiplingUnder The Deodars

Everyone makes mistakes, right? Even the National Organic Program (“NOP”), a state official in a State organic program, or a private organic certification agency can misinterpret a rule or regulation resulting in harm to an organic producer, processor or manufacturer. So, what should you do if that happens to you? Although we all normally cringe when we hear, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” in this case Congress and the USDA have provided a navigable procedure to appeal any action taken by the NOP’s Deputy Administrator, a State organic program, or a certifying agent under the Organic Foods Production Act. 7 U.S.C. § 6520(a); 7 C.F.R. § 205.680. That said, there are serious traps for the unwary and unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, just being close to compliance doesn’t count here. In this article, we will discuss the procedural aspects of the NOP appeals process. In subsequent posts, we will examine how NOP appeals are reviewed substantively and the use of mediation and settlement agreements with respect to NOP disputes.

If the NOP, a State official or your certification agency has taken action that adversely affects you or that you believe is inconsistent with the NOP’s organic certification program, you have a right to appeal that decision. The appeal will be reviewed, heard and decided by persons not involved in the underlying action that forms the basis for the appeal. 7 C.F.R. § 205.680(e). Continue Reading Appeal from an Adverse Action under the National Organic Program – a Procedural Primer