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Archi-ponics: Can We Trust USDA Certified Organics?

How do you know when your organic fruit is really certified organic? How do you know when your organic fruit is really certified organic?

These days, “organic” seems to be slapped on the labels of everything from dish soap to cereals to fruit and vegetables. What really qualifies these products as "organic”? With the growing public demand for organic goods, there's always the threat of companies or individuals taking shortcuts and incorporating synthetic substances into their products. That's why the federal government now regulates the use of the term “organic” through the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). As a result, some consumers have lost confidence in products labeled organic; they mistrust government intervention and regulation. Meanwhile, other consumers are relieved to know that "organic" producers are held to standards in order to be “USDA Certified Organic.”

But, does the “Certified Organic” label approved by the USDA really ensure that the consumer is buying truly organic products?

First, it's important to understand that the USDA actually does not certify any farms or products; the USDA simply creates the regulations through the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB requirements dictate what cannot be used in farming operations or prepared goods like cereals, frozen foods and so on. Also, the USDA does not inspect. The USDA accredits third party certifiers to do the leg work of inspecting the operations applying for Certified Organic status to ensure their compliance with the standards set forth by the NOSB. (Inspections are often unannounced.) Some of these third-party certifiers are non-profits, some are state and local governments, some were certifying operations prior to the formation of the NOSB.

In comparison to the non-certified organic farm, the certified organic farm is subject to far more scrutiny and held to high standards enforced by third party agencies.

In order to be “Certified Organic,” the producer/farm operator must first apply to a certifier with an Organic Systems Plan (OSP) in place. The OSP details every activity in production from seed to market. The OSP lists all seed or stock sources, what materials and/or fertilizers are used, how and where the products are refrigerated, how often the equipment is cleaned, the cleansers used, what the grower is doing to improve soil quality, how pests are managed . . . everything involved in the production process. The producer is required to keep detailed records of not only the completed tasks listed in the OSP, but must also retain the receipts used to purchase inputs (like fertilizers) to ensure that they are organic and are in compliance with the NOSB.

So, in comparison to the non-certified organic farm, the certified organic farm is subject to far more scrutiny and held to high standards enforced by third party agencies. Can certified organic operations cheat? Yes, there have been cases of cheating taking place. But consider this - the fact that there are producers caught cheating isn’t a sign of the system not working, but just the opposite. Otherwise, how would they have been caught? Even though the USDA NOSB system isn't perfect, it is one of the strongest voluntary regulation services for agriculture and food consumers in the industry. I would buy a "Certified Organic" product over a product claiming to be organic that is not certified, any day of the week.

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Colin and Karen Archipley are certified organic farmers.
Last modified on Thursday, 19 July 2012 17:01

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