Organic Label Certification: What's in a Name?


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By Justin Van Wart and Charles Francis

Organic” on a label at the local grocery store usually prompts thoughts of a pesticide-free, exceptionally nutritious and better-tasting product. While there is evidence pointing to the superior quality of some organic products,1 there is also evidence to the contrary.2 In the midst of this confusion, does the word organic mean anything? How does a product become certified as organic and what faith can we have in the label? It is no wonder that consumers are confused.

History of Chemical Use in Farming

 Just as in other parts of the world, essentially all agricultural production in the U.S. was de facto organic before the 20th century. Soil fertility depended on crop rotations, nitrogen fixed by legumes and from decaying green manure in the soil and animal manure from the livestock found on most farms. Most pests were managed by crop rotations, diverse varieties with genetic tolerance or resistance, and small fields that provided harmful insects and pathogens with a varied host landscape where it was relatively difficult to succeed over a very large area. To feed horses and other livestock, diverse forages were an important component of the cropping patterns on most farms. It was only when mechanization brought a rapid increase in tractor use that much of this forage was not needed. Specialization in a few crops and intensive feeding of grain to livestock further eroded the importance of grass and legume forage crops and pastures on farms.

As chemical fertilizers and the first chemical pesticides were introduced in the U.S. in the first half of the last century, many farmers were reluctant to adopt them. When synthesized chemicals such as DDT insecticide and urea fertilizer first came into the marketplace, there were many questions from farmers and research scientists about their long-term impacts. Prominent among the scientists was Professor William Albrecht of University of Missouri who researched organic approaches to soil fertility as described below. It was not until publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”3 decades later (1962) that many of their fears were confirmed, but by then a massive change in mainstream agriculture had swung management to include the adoption of many chemical pesticide and fertilizer formulations.

History of Organic Food in the U.S.

Before the 1980s in the U.S., near the beginning of the modern organic agriculture movement, certification was largely seen as unnecessary. Authentication of holistic practices was based on farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-consumer relationships and peer-to-peer inspection and confirmation. As the industry grew, the proportion of organic producers pursuing a time-consuming face-to-face marketing strategy diminished. Moreover, a growing number of consumers began looking for organic products at conventional distribution sites such as supermarkets, grocery stores, mainstream restaurants and megamarts (hypermarkets) such as Super Target, Super Kmart and Walmart.4 In addition to food, consumers have demanded health care products, cosmetics, housewares and a variety of other merchandise be certified organic. The coordination necessary to supply these demands led many suppliers to request independent third-party certification.

In the late 1980s there were disagreements among certifiers, television specials about contaminated foods and cases of organic-certification fraud. All these factors led organic advocates to seek federal regulation, and the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) was born In this act the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was obligated to establish a National Organic Program (NOP) to regulate certification and labeling. The original three requirements for certification in the OFPA to be certified organic were (1) no synthetic chemicals in production, (2) no chemicals on the land for three years prior to harvesting and (3) commitment to abide by an organic production and handling plan between producers, handlers, processors and retailers.

Once the OFPA was approved, the secretary began compiling a national list of allowable and prohibited substances. He was aided by a national organic standards board (NOSB) as stipulated in the OFPA. The board was composed of 15 members: four organic farmers, two organic handlers, one organic retailer, three environmentalists, three representatives from consumer interest groups, one scientist (ecology/biochemistry/ toxicology) and one organic certifying agent. They would serve for five years and be compensated for travel expenses. After the national list was established, any individual could petition the NOSB to prohibit or allow any substance. Items on the list received a review every five years and were not to be reviewed before another five years passed unless significant new information was determined. Any changes made to the national list are published in the federal registry for public comment.5

The first draft of the organic-allowable list from the NOP was released in 1997. It took most of the organic community by surprise to find irradiation, GMOs and sewage sludge subtly allowed in the rule. Close to 280,000 people nationwide wrote to contest the inclusions, making this the most commented-on issue in USDA history6 and the only time an industry fought for stricter standards for itself.7 In October 2002, after much deliberation and advocacy input, the NOP was implemented by the USDA.

The term “organic” was most likely introduced by Walter Northbourne (1940) in his book titled “Look to the Land,”8 where he discussed the importance of looking at the farm as a whole. His definition was that “organic refers to having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things.” According to the USDA, organic production is production integrating “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

Economics of Organic Foods

It is difficult to discuss the philosophy and need for certification outside of the context of the economics that have traditionally been unique to organic agriculture. Three economic issues stand out as significantly contributing to the need for verification of organic practices: the costs and benefits of going organic, price signaling and industrial organization—that is to say, competition and fraud. Transitioning to an organic system from a conventional one presents the interested farmer with a unique set of opportunity costs as her farm undergoes a period of soil building before organic yields will resemble the historical conventional levels. For ideological, social and political reasons, consumers or governments are often willing to pay a premium to offset these costs and to encourage the transition, and some provide outright subsidies to farmers to make the conversion, for example in the European Union (EU).

The difficulty becomes how to signal to consumers and governments that organic production methodology was undertaken by the producer and to unify what that production methodology entails. Anyone can claim to use a holistic approach and attempt to raise the price. While advocates of price signaling may swear by the ability of price to capture and represent all relevant information, one number isn’t enough in today’s highly preferential producer and consumer world. Producers and consumers are interested in attributes of quality, size, quantity, nutrition and methods of production, and price cannot adequately or sufficiently represent each of these simultaneously. A second difficulty is determining what qualifies as organic. Because organic is based on principles of building soil, it will look very different on sand versus clay soils, whereas conventional agriculture looks more similar everywhere. In addition, it would be nearly impossible with today’s technology to test every product for every known pesticide, every piece of land for every known synthetic chemical, and every processor and wholesaler of every business to ensure adequate handling and separation for every producer and retailer who wants to be certified. These difficulties lead us to a fundamental truth about certification: this is about a process rather than a product.

Certification Process

Though consumers are often willing to pay more for food from holistic-minded producers, it would be too costly for each producer and consumer to verify organic status or sift through every verification agency’s claims of organic certification. Consumers willing to pay higher prices for perceived superior quality attract fraud from every level of the supply chain. Cheaters are a part of most market games where there can be winners and losers, and organic agricultural production is unfortunately no different. Human nature seems to require policing and legal accountability. All of these factors contribute to the need for independent third-party certification.

Drawn from publicly transparent national standards, certification provides producers with access to price premium benefits after paying the costs of access, consumers receive more comprehensive signals and fraud is made much more difficult and severely restricted. A unified, verifiable concept of organics also makes exporting, mass production and mass transport more feasible.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about organic certification. Many who have been with the modern organic movement since its beginning see certification as undermining the holistic roots of organic production. They claim that true organic products should be sold locally and should be especially attractive to the small independent farmer, not the factory farm. They maintain that certification puts up barriers of paperwork, costs and bureaucracy that prevent otherwise interested farmers from going organic.9 They fear degradation of the standards used in certification is inevitable as big business lobbyists, provided a legal framework to work in, slowly erode and make allowances in the standards to meet their special interests and gain market share. Many also feel the standards don’t go far enough, often because there is no mention of fair and equitable employment practices or local community social justice issues and because of the allowance of certain synthetic chemicals.10 These and other reasons have led many to request a “beyond organic” certification standard or an elimination of certain certification standards.

In the U.S. we currently have a complex system that includes state certification, a number of nonprofit certification agencies and a growing number of private certifiers. Every agency is different and offers a variety of additional services to attract producers. Each must use standards that meet the minimum specified by the NOP, but most have higher standards—that is, more strict rules—to help farmers market their organic products in specific places. For example, the export market must meet the specific requirements of Japan, of the EU or of the strictest rules of all for Switzerland. Most organic farmers who decide to certify will examine the rules of these various options, determine which markets are most appropriate and choose a certification agency to best meet their individual needs.

Furthmore, different certification agencies offer services in addition to certification to attract producers. Some of these include regular periodic conferences, peer-to-peer support and learning groups, marketing connections, lower prices on inspections, group rates, faster review processes and others. Agencies also differ in which step of the process they are more or less lenient in granting certification. Like all regulation, the NOP is not comprehensive, and even explicit rules have room for interpretation. This is another reason why every agency goes through a review process for their certification licensing.

So what does “organic” really mean? When you purchase a product labeled “organic,” you can be sure that the practices used to bring you that product were inspected for compliance with a nationally supported, holistically minded process, that the producer of your product was inspected and that the inspecting agency was also inspected. Even so, the best way to be sure you know where your food comes from is to talk to your farmer.



1. Williams, Christine. “Nutritional Quality of Organic Food: Shades of Grey or Shades of Green?” “Proceedings of the Nutrition Society” (2002): 19–24.

2. British Food Standards Agency. “Organic Reviews Published.” Food Standards Agency. (accessed October 2010).

3. Carson, Rachel. “Silent Spring.” Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Publ., 1962.

4. Duram, Leslie A. “Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works.” Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

5. U.S. Government. “National List Petition Process.” In “Federal Register” 65 (2002): 43259.

6. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). “The History of CCOF.” California Certified Organic Farmers. (accessed Jan. 24, 2008).

7. Om Organics. “History of Organics.” Om Organics/ Whole Foods IP, L.P. (accessed Jan. 24, 2008).

8. Northbourne, Walter. “Look to the Land.” London, UK: Dent Publ., 1940.

9. Henderson, Harold. “Crop Busters.” In Chicago Reader Vol. 27 No. 51 (1998). Also available online at

10. Duram.

Additional Resource:

Baker, Brian et al. “Brief History of Organic Farming and the National Organic Program.” In “Organic Farming Compliance Handbook: A Resource Guide for Western Region Agricultural Professionals, Western Region SARE Program, 2005.” (accessed Oct. 22, 2007).


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