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USDA National Organic Program (NOP)

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Evaluation Tool

USDA National Organic Program (NOP)

Tool Category

Standards, Certifications & Labels

At a Glance

The National Organic Program (NOP) was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic met consistent, uniform standards. NOP regulations require that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms or handling operations certified by a State or private entity that has been accredited by USDA. Retailers selling agricultural products labeled as "organic" must follow specific guidelines for storage, handling and marketing.

Tool Website(s)

Tool Owner/Sponsor

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA, AMS)

Type of Entity

Federal Government

Focus of Evaluation


Product Stage of Life Evaluated

Raw materials, transportation, consumer use

Impact(s) Evaluated

Ecological health, human health

Tool Description

The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards. NOP accredits private businesses, organizations, and state agencies to certify producers and handlers of agricultural products who meet NOP regulations. NOP also maintains a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which identifies substances that may and may not be used in organic production and handling operations.

NOP regulations cover in detail all aspects of food production, processing, delivery and retail sale. Under the NOP, farmers and food processors who wish to use the word "organic" in reference to their businesses and products, must be certified organic. A USDA Organic seal identifies products with at least 95% organic ingredients.

The NOP covers fresh and processed agricultural food products, including crops and livestock. Health and beauty products (eg: organic shampoo) can also be labeled organic if compliant with NOP.

Retailers do not need to be certified in order to sell organic agricultural products. However, they are responsible for verifying and maintaining the organic integrity of those products. Four major areas of operation where retailers must be mindful of maintaining the organic integrity of a product are receiving, storage, preparation, and display.

Product Categories

Food & Beverage; Lawn & Garden

Tool Requirements

Farmers and handlers (which may include retailers) applying for certification must submit specific information to an accredited certifying agent including: the type of operation to be certified; a history of substances applied to the land for the previous 3 years; the organic products being grown, raised or processed; and the organic system plan (OSP) - a plan describing practices and substances used in production. The OSP must also describe monitoring practices to verify that the plan is effectively implemented, the record-keeping system, and practices to prevent commingling of organic and nonorganic products, and to prevent contact of products with prohibited substances. Applicants for certification must keep accurate post-certification records for 5 years concerning the production, harvesting, and handling of agricultural products that are to be sold as organic. These records must document that the operation is in compliance with the regulations and verify the information provided to the certifying agent. Access to these records must be provided to authorized representatives of USDA, including the certifying agent. Under NOP retailers are required to perform due diligence to be sure that the products they label and sell as organic are indeed organic. They suggest procedures that retailers may establish to meet these requirements for receiving, storage (including pest management), preparation and display (including labeling). See:

Cost of Tool

There is an Organic Certification Cost Share Program established to reimburse eligible producers and handlers for a portion of the costs of organic certification.

Evaluation Frequency

Inspections are conducted of each certified operation annually, along with updates of information to the certifying agent in advance of conducting these inspections. Certifying agents must be notified by a producer or handler immediately of any changes affecting an operation's compliance with the regulations, such as application of a prohibited pesticide to a field. The regulations permit USDA or the certifying agent to conduct unannounced inspections at any time to adequately enforce the regulations. Certifying agents and USDA may also conduct pre- or post-harvest testing if there is reason to believe that an agricultural input or product has come into contact with a prohibited substance or been produced using an excluded method. Applicants for certification must keep accurate post-certification records for 5 years concerning the production, harvesting, and handling of agricultural products that are to be sold as organic.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths: Restricted and permitted substances lists provide certifiers and users with clear information about what is allowable to be considered certified organic. Record keeping requirements are stringent and accredited 3rd party certifiers have the authority to make unannounced inspections to verify compliance giving retailers confidence in the organic status of products.

Weaknesses: Retailers do not need to be certified in order to sell organic agricultural products but the NOP regulations require retailers follow guidelines and procedures when selling organic products even if they are not certified.

Examples of Retailers That Use It

Most supermarkets carry food certified as organic.

Similar Tools that Serve the Same Industry or Product Category

Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)

For More Information

National Organic Program: (202) 720-3252,


Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

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