Organic Food – USDA National Organic Program

The 15 people sitting on the National Organic Standards Board control what goes in and on food sold as USDA Organic in the U.S. That’s a lot of power.

I’d never even heard of the National Organic Standards Board until a month or so ago. It all started, as many things do, at the dinner table.

Ever since my spouse and I decided to make a conscious effort to eat food we feel is healthier for us and the planet, USDA Organic food has increasingly found its way into our shopping basket and on to our table.

Bunch of Organic CarrotsOne night during dinner, my son and I were having a friendly debate about organic food. “Is it really better for people and the environment?” “Is a benign pesticide even possible?”

Suddenly it struck me. I didn’t actually know what the USDA Organic label meant. Now I had to find out.

I decided to investigate organic food and share what I learned. My search began with a look back at the roots of organic food which led to the first post, Organic Food – History. This post will briefly look at the Organic Foods Production Act and delve into the framework of the National Organic Program. Another post will deal specifically with what the USDA Organic label means.

Organic Foods Production Act of 1990

After several decades of growing public concern about the environment and food safety, and increasing interest in organic farming and food, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 as part of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (commonly known as the Farm Bill).

The purpose of the law was threefold:

  1. To establish national standards for organic agricultural products (food and non-food crops and livestock).
  2. To assure consumers organic products meet a consistent standard.
  3. To facilitate the interstate commerce of organic food.

The law’s main provisions are summarized under the National Organic Production Program section:

  • It authorized and required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national organic certification program.
  • It permitted each state to implement a state organic certification program that could be more stringent as long as it complied with federal requirements.
  • It established a National Organic Standards Board and a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
  • It directed the Secretary of Agriculture to implement the program via certifying agents which could be state representatives or private entities.

National Organic Program

The National Organic Program (NOP) resides under the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). It is overseen by the AMS Administrator and run by the NOP Program Manager.

Old Creek Ranch Organic Farm

Organic production is defined as: “A production system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and 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.” 1

National Organic Standards Board

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is responsible for proposing substances to be included on or removed from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and advises the Secretary of Agriculture on other aspects of the NOP.

The 15 people who make up the Board are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and serve for 5 years. The NOP stipulates the Board makeup as follows:

  • People in a Meeting at Conference Table4 – people who own or operate an organic farm
  • 2 – people who own or operate an organic handling operation
  • 1 – person who owns or operates a retail establishment with significant trade in organics
  • 3 – people with expertise in environmental protection and resource conservation
  • 3 – people who represent public or consumer interest groups
  • 1 – person with expertise in toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry
  • 1 – person who is a certifying agent

Proceedings of the NOSB are regulated by the Federal Advisory Committee Act which requires meetings be open to the public, committee procedures be documented, meeting minutes be taken and published, an officer or employee of the federal government be present at all meetings, and the Library of Congress retain at least eight copies of all reports.

In theory anyone can nominate themselves or anyone else for a vacant Board member seat, however, the practice seems to be new members are invited by the current Board.

I looked up the bios (probably self-written) of the current NOSB members. They appear to be educated people with organic experience, but in some cases, their areas of expertise did not seem to match the position they held on the Board.

National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, known as the National List, is a critical component of the NOP. This National List identifies which synthetic substances may be used and which natural substances may not be used to grow crops, raise livestock, and process packaged foods.

The National Organic Standards Board develops a proposed list of substances for inclusion and removal from the National List for review and approval by the Secretary of Agriculture.

We’ll look at the details of the National List in a future post.

Accredited Certifying Agents

The AMS Administrator accredits domestic or foreign certifying agents who in turn certify organic production and handling operations.

Certifying agents must demonstrate expertise in organic production and handling, have sufficient and adequately trained staff, maintain records for 5 years, respect client confidentiality, and prevent conflicts of interest

Once approved, accreditation is for a period of 5 years and can be renewed indefinitely as long as the agent complies with the NOP, pays an annual fee, and submits an annual report.

Certified Production and Handling Operations

A production operation is a farm or ranch engaged in growing or producing food,  livestock, fiber, feed, or other agricultural products. A handling operation receives organic agricultural products then processes, packages, and stores them (this does not include retailers who do not process products). A producer may also be a handler.

Certification requirements include:

  • Burlap Sack of Organic Coffee BeansDemonstrate the ability to comply with NOP and organic standards.
  • Establish, implement, and annually update an organic system plan that describes how the operation is run, lists each substance used, and documents monitoring and recordkeeping practices.
  • Permit on-site inspections and testing of samples.
  • Maintain records for at least 5 years.
  • Notify the certifying agent of application of prohibited substances or issues with compliance.

After initial approval, certification continues as long as the operation complies with the NOP, and on an annual basis pays a fee, submits required documentation, and passes an on-site inspection.

Any production or handling operation that sells agricultural products as “organic” in the U.S. must be certified unless their gross income from organic sales is $5,000 or less.

Domestic and foreign production and handling operations wishing to label products as USDA Organic may apply for organic certification.

A database of USDA certified organic operations is available on the NOP website.

Compliance and Violations

Judge's Wooden GavelAt the top of the food chain so to speak is the National Organic Program’s Program Manager who has the authority to inspect and review certified operations and certifying agents and initiate suspension, revocation, or other proceedings if they believe there is a violation.

The NOP Program Manager oversees compliance of accredited certifying agents who in turn ensure compliance of certified operations.

A certifying agent whose accreditation is revoked cannot reapply for 3 years.

If a certified operation has its certification revoked it cannot reapply for 5 years. In addition, anyone who knowingly labels or sells a product as organic that is not organic faces a civil penalty of up to $11,000. The financial penalty seems minuscule, especially for a huge company, but perhaps the threat of having one’s certification revoked for 5 years helps keep companies in line.

Any person who suspects a violation of NOP regulations may file a complaint via the NOP website.


We’ve learned about general requirements for becoming an accredited certifying agent or certified organic operation, the makeup and role of the National Organic Standards Board, what the National List is, and what happens to those who violate the NOP.

The other posts in this series will take a more in-depth look at organic regulations including production and handling requirements and the National List, and USDA Organic labeling.

Related Posts


  1. U.S. Government Printing Office – Electronic Code of Federal Regulations – National Organic Program – Section 205.2 Terms Defined


Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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