How To Get A Certified Organic Product Label (in the USA)

Posted on October 26, 2010

How To Get A Certified Organic Product Label (in the USA)

Are you thinking about having your naturally-grown food or beverage products labeled as certified organic?

We get a lot of questions about organic labeling, so QuickLabel Systems put together these FAQs to explain the steps involved in getting a Certified USDA Organic label on your products.

What Does it Mean if a Product is Labeled as “Organic”?

In the United States, if a food or beverage product is labeled as “organic,” that means that the product has been grown, produced, inspected, and certified to be in compliance with the organic standards of the National Organic Program (NOP), a program of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Only the USDA can authorize a company to market and label its food or beverage as organic. If a company is authorized to label a product as USDA Organic, it has met USDA National Organic Program standards including:

  • Pesticides: Foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides
  • Fertilizer: Foods are produced without using fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge
  • Bioengineering and Radiation: Foods are produced without the use of bioengineering or ionizing radiation
  • Antibiotics and Growth Hormone: Organic meat, poultry, eggs,and dairy products must come from animals that are not antibiotics or growth hormones
  • Sustainable Practices: The production process must use renewable resources and conserve soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations

Are There Different Organic Label Statements for Different Levels of Organic?

Yes, and you must label your product with the correct organic statement.

  • 100% Organic: 100% of ingredients are organic, processing is 100% organic.  
  • Organic: 95% or more of ingredients are organic, some USDA-approved chemical additives may be used in processing.  
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: Certain ingredients are organic. This label statement is not a USDA standard labeling statement and cannot be used outside of the Ingredients Panel on the label. However, it can be made if a USDA-approved certifying agent has verified the claim that some ingredients are organic.

How Can My Company Get a Certified Organic Product Label?

Before you use the term “organic” on a product label sold in the United States, you must be given official certification and approval by the USDA.

Although the USDA sets organic standards, they do not directly certify farmers and processors. Organic Certifying Agents, who are accredited by the USDA, are responsible for the certification process.

USDA Organic Seal

You must hire an Organic Certifying Agent to verify that your production process meets USDA organic standards. Check out this list on the USDA website to find an accredited USDA organic certifying agency (PDF).

Is it OK to Use an Organic Label without USDA Approval?

No, it is not legal to market foods, beverages, or other agricultural products as “organic” if they are not USDA certified organic.You may face a fine of $11,000 if you do!

The label term “organic” is regulated, and can’t be used without official approval from the USDA and USDA Organic certification. US companies have been given large fines, up to thousands of dollars, from the USDA when organic labeling is improperly used.

Are Small Farms Exempt from USDA Organic Standards?

Yes. Farms and processors with $5,000 or less in gross income from organic sales are exempt USDA NOP standards and may label products as organic without USDA organic certification.

Can I rotate the USDA Organic Logo on My Label?

No, the USDA organic logo must be used in read direction only.

Can I Change the Color of the USDA Organic Logo on My Label?

No, the USDA Organic seal can only be represented in white, green (PMS 348), and brown (PMS 175), or in black-and-white. Many label designers wonder whether it’s OK to print the USDA Organic Seal in a different color because they want it to match their label design, but it’s important to adhere to USDA standards for use of the official organic seal. If you print your own labels, you will need a full color label printer to produce the organic logo in color, or at least a monochrome barcode label printer to produce the USDA organic logo in black and white.

What is the Marketing Value of an Organic Label?

The decision to certify and label your products as organic will involve time and cost. You may ask yourself: “will an organic label help me to sell more products to consumers?”

In an interview, we asked Curtis Johnson, General Manager of Woodstock Farms Manufacturing, whether he thought having an organic seal makes a product more marketable.

“You have to have it. It’s not a luxury these days. People really want and ask for and demand the organic certification. The actual certification on the package is a requirement, but it is also advertising, saying ‘our product is organic certified, so you know what you’re getting is good, and it’s tested,” said Johnson.

Woodstock Farms USDA Organic Flax Seed

 Mushroom farmer Eric Rose, who maintained organic standards even before applying for official USDA Organic certification, recently told the New York Times that he expected to be able to sell his produce for $1 per pound more when he gets the USDA Organic label.

Rosemary Quinn of the California Certified Organic Farmers Association (CCOF) underscored the importance of the USDA certified organic label, saying “the USDA organic seal allows for consumer trust in the organic integrity of a product. For consumers who want foods produced without pesticides or genetic engineering, the organic seal ensures this from farm to table.”

What Kind of Products Can Be Labeled with the USDA Organic Seal?

Only agricultural products that achieve organic certification can be labeled organic. This includes foods and beverages such as cheese, chocolate, cookies, juices, meats, milk, pasta, poultry, prepared sauces, soups, wines and alcoholic beverages, and more. Fiber products such as clothing, bedding, and tablecloths can also be labeled organic if they are made of organically grown natural fibers.

Personal care products and cosmetic products can only be labeled USDA Organic if they are made up of agricultural products. Otherwise, the FDA does not define the use of the term “organic” and does not regulate organic labeling for cosmetic products. Because of this, makers of personal care and cosmetics products are adopting their own voluntary, private organic standard, through the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).

What is the Process to Get My Products Certified Organic?

You must familiarize yourself with USDA organic production requirements, and write an “organic system plan” that outlines your own production practices and verifies your compliance with USDA organic standards. Each processing plant and each company that handles your product before it is packaged must complete its own organic system plan. Then, submit your organic system plan to your certifying agent and prepare to be visited by your certifying agent for a site inspection. During your site inspection, your plan will be referenced to confirm that your actual practices following your plan.

To get an idea of how to prepare for an organic inspection, check out this preparation article from National Sustainable Agricultural Information Center.

 How Much Does Organic Certification Cost?

Certification costs vary depending on the size of your production operation and on the accredited agency you choose to use. In general, organic certification costs run between $200 – $1500.

Your costs will include an application fee, site inspection fee, and an annual certification fee. Of course, your total costs will also include any expense you must make to bring your growing and production processes into compliance with National Organic Program standards.

We asked Rosemary Quinn, marketing specialist at the California Certified  Organic Farmers Certification Service, to give us an idea of what it would cost to become certified organic with the CCOF as a certifying agent. She gave us these rules of thumb:

  • Initial Application Fee: $275.
  • Site Inspection Fee: depends on time and materials, usually less than $500.
  • Expedited Certification Service: $1,475
  • Annual Certification Fee: based on the Gross Organic Production Value, usually between $400 and $1,500 for a small farm or small processor

Are There Any Discounts Available for Organic Certification?

Yes. The USDA offers a “Cost Sharing Program” on a state by state basis that can save your business up to 75% of the costs associated with the organic certification process, not to exceed $750 per year.

Visit the USDA for more information about the USDA Organic Cost Share Program.

When Will I be Approved for Organic Labeling?

After your site inspection is complete, the USDA approval process may take anywhere from 6 to 10 weeks. Once certification is granted, you will officially receive the right to label your products with the USDA organic seal.

After you are approved, you will be responsible for putting your organic system plan into action. You must update your plan annually in order to keep your current practices consistent with USDA organic regulations.

Will My Organic Certification Expire?

No, your organic certification will not expire. You will continue to be able to use organic labels on your products until you no longer want to maintain your certification.

However, your organic certifying agency may revoke or suspend your right to label products as organic if it determines that you are not following your organic system plan or that you are out of compliance with organic standards.

If you fail to follow organic standards, you are not legally allowed to continue to use an organic statement on your label, or an organic seal or agency certification logo. If you use organic statements on your labels without the right to do so, you will face large fines from the USDA.

How Can I Get an Organic Logo on My Label?

After your organic certification is approved and you receive the right to print an USDA Organic seal on your labels, you can either buy new printed labels which feature the USDA organic seal, or you can use an in-house digital label printer to change your labels and make your own labels with the organic seal.

QuickLabel Systems offers several solutions for putting the organic logo on your label. By printing your own organic labels with a QuickLabel printer you have the ability to change your label design and print new product labels with your organic logo or certification seal, at your finger tips. You can also print private label versions of organic product labels at any time, changing the logo branding and name on the label and retaining the organic seal and statement.

More Resources About Organic Labeling:

USDA – Organic Labeling and Marketing Claims

“About Organic” – California Certified Organic Farmers

List of US Agencies That Can Certify you to Label Your Products as Organic

Link to Download the Official USDA Organic Seal

QuickLabel Digital Color Label Printers

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