We’ve all come to recognize, and at least somewhat understand, the green-and-white USDA certified organic label on foods. Many of us rely on it to fill our carts with foods grown without pesticides and other chemicals. Natural Vitality Living writes a lot about the farmers who bring us these products. This time we caught up with the middleman of the organic industry—the certifiers.
Accredited Certifying Agencies (ACAs) are independent agencies that work on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture to ensure that farmers and manufacturers are complying with the organic rules set forth by the National Organic Program. Okay, not so glamorous, but it’s a vital step in the organic certification process and ensures that when you pay for organic, you’re indeed getting organic. Learning more about the organic process can increase consumer trust and confidence in the organic seal.
To get the organic designation, any operation must run according to rigorous standards of the National Organic Program. The first step is the paperwork proving that your business adheres to the rules. “Farmers have to have their soil tested for residues, as well as storage facilities and any manufacturing processes inspected for organic compliance, and always have this paperwork up to date and on file,” says Jaclyn Bowen, general manager for Quality Assurance International, an organic certifying agency. For example, all pest control has to be approved as organic.
So, consider if you’re making an organic finished product like pasta sauce; that has to be monitored all the way from the onions, garlic and tomatoes to the manufacturing and packaging plant. “You can’t have any unapproved ingredients in that sauce, and you must maintain paperwork proving that all of those ingredients are organic,” Bowen asserts. “We are responsible for ensuring organic integrity is maintained while that product is being made.”
In addition to paperwork, there’s fieldwork. “When the audits take place we go out to the farms, and you put your boots on and you’re looking at the animals and plants,” says Bowen. “That’s where we go out and make sure that what’s represented on paper is truly what’s being done in practice. Sometimes we pull samples right there where we are auditing, or sometimes we go out to grocery stores and we’ll randomly test products for pesticides or GMOs. We even look at product labels at the grocery store to make sure they compare with those labels we have on file.”
The National Organic Program does not allow genetically modified organisms in any organic foods, but it doesn’t require testing for the presence of GMOs like it does for pesticides. To minimize cross-contamination from neighboring GM crops, independent certifying agencies require various regulations or testing from farmers.
For instance, QAI requires farmers to utilize buffer zones. Also, if QAI suspects contamination/comingling, be it with pesticides or using GM ingredients, it conducts thorough investigations, from unannounced audits to collecting samples and testing. “Over the past year, the NOP has been closely working with ACAs such as QAI on a mandatory random testing program,” Bowen explains. “Essentially, this would be an effort deployed globally on behalf of all NOP ACAs to require that a minimum of 5 percent testing of operations be conducted every year from all certifiers, which would include GM and prohibited pesticides. This is just another example of efforts underway to ensure long-term consumer trust in the word organic,” she says.