An Introduction to the National Organic Program Established by Congress and announced in 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) National Organic Program (“NOP”) is a federal regulatory program which develops and enforces uniform national standards for organically-produced agricultural products sold in the United States. NOP operates as a public-private partnership which accredits third-party organizations to certify that farms and businesses meet the national organic standards. By enforcing its standards, NOP ensures a level playing field for producers while protecting consumer confidence in the integrity of the USDA organic seal.
The NOP’s Compliance & Enforcement Division (“C&E”) is involved in enforcement organic standards. C&E enforces rules by working with independent certifying agencies. Independent certifying agencies accredited by the USDA conduct periodic inspections or audits.
What is Organic Equivalency?
Like the U.S., many countries have their own organic standards and certification programs. For organic businesses operating in multiple countries, this can mean they must maintain different organic certifications in each country where they operate.
Organic equivalency is when two countries recognize each other’s organic program as being equivalent. If two countries are equivalent, organic products can be sold in either country with just one organic certification. For U.S. exporters, this reduces the number of certifications they must maintain.
The Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) works with the Foreign Agricultural Service (“FAS”) and Office of the United States Trade Representative (“USTR”) to establish equivalency arrangements. Equivalence means that the U.S. has determined that a foreign government’s standards, organic control system oversight, and enforcement programs meet or exceed the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act (“OFPA”) and the USDA organic regulations.
If USDA determines that the foreign government’s organic system is equivalent, the two governments exchange official letters and the terms of equivalency arrangement, including any product exception if the systems are not equivalent in specific areas. Once this process is complete, AMS will publicly disclose on its website the terms of the determination and the final resolution of differences between the U.S. and foreign government’s system.
Currently, the NOP maintains equivalency arrangements with the following countries/international organizations:
Additionally, the NOP has limited engagements with and specialized guidance for:
The Impact of Equivalency Arrangements
The Organic Trade Association, a business association for organic agriculture and products in North America, has found that organic equivalency policies positively affect the level of trade, especially with U.S. organic exports. In fact, the Canada organic equivalency arrangement, the oldest of the equivalency arrangements, has the strongest effect on U.S. organic exports.
The NOP offers helpful resources for the benefit of organic producers, distributors, and consumers. These resources help ensure that organic producers and distributors are proactive about their NOP compliance. These resources include:
- Organic Integrity Database
- NOP’s Organic Integrity Databaselets interested parties and the public alike research the organic status of organic farms and businesses. These listings are provided to NOP from accredited certifying agents.
- Organic Integrity Learning Center
- Through its Organic Integrity Learning Center, NOP provides a wide range of free training and outreach materials for organic farms, businesses, and organic certification agencies. The Learning Center supports the professional development and continuing education of professionals working to protect organic integrity including certifiers, inspectors, reviewers and compliance specialists in organic businesses.
- National Organic Program Handbook
- NOP’s handbook provides those who own, manage, or certify organic operations with guidance and instructions that can assist them in complying with the USDA organic regulations. Although the handbook is non-binding guidance, it provides critical insight into NOP’s procedures and expectations of industry.
What You Should Do
Diaz Trade Law has significant experience on NOP matters. We recommend you consider the following actions to proactively strengthen your organic trade program:
- Develop an organic compliance program – A key foundation of proactive and effective organic compliance requires the development of an organic compliance plan. An organic compliance plan establishes a set of procedures for your organization to ensure that everyone is on the same page about how standard processes work, who is responsible for what, how to identify violations, what to do when violations occur, etc. An organic compliance plan helps build consciousness in your organization that compliance is critical – both to avoid costly penalties and preserve your certified status. Diaz Trade Law helps businesses create organic compliance manuals that help prove you have a process in place to ensure you can take compliance seriously. Additionally, Diaz Trade Law can assist your business in auditing and improving your current plan so that it is in its best shape.
- Ensure you have the proper certifications – NOP enforces rules by working with independent certifying agencies. Independent certifying agencies accredited by the USDA conduct periodic inspections or audits. It is important that you have an open and positive working relationship with your organic certifier, and that you have the appropriate certification for your business operations.
- Audit your operations and potentially disclose violations – If your business believes it may have violated the OFPA or the USDA organic regulations, contact us immediately. It may be in your business’ strategic interest to disclose the violations to NOP as part of a settlement discussion.
- Perform organic compliance training – A foundation of a strong organic compliance program is organic compliance training.
- Training is important because it:
- (1) ensures that all employees understand the OFPA and NOP organic standard requirements and reinforces internal policies and procedures,
- (2) demonstrates to the USDA that your business is proactive about organic compliance, and
- (3) potentially avoids your business from being subject to costly penalties and even criminal liability.
- Fortunately, through its Organic Integrity Learning Center, NOP provides a wide range of free training and outreach materials for organic farms, businesses, and organic certification agencies. The Learning Center supports the professional development and continuing education of professionals working to protect organic integrity including certifiers, inspectors, reviewers and compliance specialists in organic businesses. Diaz Trade Law can assist you in determining what training programs are appropriate for you.
- Training is important because it:
- Have a process in place for correction action when necessary – If your business has violated U.S. organic compliance laws, there is a lot you should do to get back into compliance, including ensuring you work to prevent future violations, training your employees, and updating your manuals. Diaz Trade Law has significant experience representing businesses in dealing with the USDA’s NOP program. Specifically, Diaz Trade Law has successfully assisted clients in
- (1) disclosing violations,
- (2) negotiating settlement agreements,
- (3) building corrective action systems to help ensure that your business does not make the same violation again, and
- (4) updating and enhancing your current organic compliance plan.
If you have questions or require assistance on organic trade matters, contact Diaz Trade Law today at email@example.com or 305-456-3830.
Co-Authored by Jen Diaz & Sharath Patil