In the United States, the National Organic Program (NOP) is the federal regulatory framework governing organic food. It is also the name of the program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) responsible for administering and enforcing the regulatory framework. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 required that the USDA develop national standards for organic products, and the final rule establishing the NOP was first published in the Federal Register in 2000 and is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations at 7 C.F.R. 205. The core mission of the NOP is to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal.
The NOP covers fresh and processed agricultural food products, including crops and livestock. It does cover non-food products that may be sold as organic, including natural fibers (e.g.: organic cotton). Health and beauty products (e.g.: organic shampoo) can also be labeled organic if compliant with NOP. The USDA NOP does have the authority to enforce organic standards in the realm of health and beauty products, and were encouraged to do so in a 2009 recommendation from the USDA National Organic Standards Board. While the actual law does apply to these products, enforcement remains limited in this market. Regulations of the NOP also do not address issues of nutrition or food safety.
The National Organic Program grew from fewer than twelve total employees in 2008 to approximately 45 in 2015. As of April 2011, it operates in three divisions in addition to the Office of Deputy Administrator: Standards, Accreditation and International Activities (AIA), and Compliance and Enforcement.
The key activities of the National Organic Program are to:Maintain the list of certified organic operations and help new farmers and business learn how to get certified
Develop regulations and guidance on organic standards
Manage the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
Accredit certifying agents to certify organic producers & handlers
Establish international organic import and export policies
Facilitate the work of the National Organic Standards Board, a Federal Advisory Committee
Oversee the Organic Certification Cost Share programs to support certified organic operators
Provide training to certifying agents, USDA staff, & other stakeholders
Engage and serve the organic community
The AMS has established five strategic goals for the NOP for 2015-2018: Protect organic integrity (through policies, compliance, audits of the organic seal); Facilitate market access (by supporting producers and processors, and supporting organic trade agreements); Create and implement clear standards; Build technology that advances organic integrity (by building a database and enhancing management tools); and Develop the team and organization.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 "requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances which identifies synthetic substances that may be used, and the nonsynthetic substances that cannot be used, in organic production and handling operations." Under this act, the Secretary of Agriculture promulgated regulations establishing the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2000. It restricts the use of the term "organic" to certified organic producers (excepting growers selling under $5,000 a year, who must still comply and submit to a records audit if requested, but do not have to formally apply). Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the USDA (see section below).
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. Producers with annual sales not exceeding US$5,000 are exempted and do not require certification (however, they must still follow NOP standards, including keeping records and submitting to a production audit if requested, and cannot use the term certified organic).
Products labeled “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients” must adhere to the Organic Production and Handling Requirements outlined in the regulation 7 CFR Part 205. A USDA Organic seal identifies raw, fresh, and processed products with at least 95% organic ingredients. A product that has not been certified organic by a USDA-authorized certifying agent may not bear the USDA organic seal. Products containing at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients may include a “Made with Organic” label to specify up to three ingredients or ingredient categories. They can not use the USDA organic seal or represent that the finished product is organic. Misuse of the USDA Organic seal on a product may lead to USDA compliance and enforcement actions, including fines up to $11,000 per violation. Misuse may also lead to the suspension or revocation of the violator's organic certificate.
Beginning in 2009, the NOP implemented an international organic equivalency agreement with Canada. In 2012 they entered an agreement with the European Union, and in 2014 with Japan and Korea. Under these agreements, USDA-certified organic products do not need to meet a separate set of standards before being exported to the market, and vice versa, as equivalency agreements essentially imply that the two sets of standards are equivalent despite a few small differences and do not require any additional certification for the specific market. These agreements streamline certification requirements and increase access to new market opportunities, while maintaining organic integrity of the respective markets.
As of 2015, there are 80 USDA Accredited Certifying Agents (ACAs) who are accredited and authorized by the USDA to certify organic operations as in compliance with USDA organic standards. "Of these, 48 are based in the U.S. and 32 are based in foreign countries. Most certifying agents are directly accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Twenty-one additional certifying agents are authorized through recognition agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments."
According to USDA statistics, in 2012 the largest ACAs in the U.S. are CCOF Certification Services (14% of the USDA-certified organic operations in the United States), followed by Midwest Organic Services Association, Inc. (8%), Oregon Tilth (7%), and Quality Assurance International (QAI) (6%), the Washington State Department of Agriculture (6%), and the Organic Crop Improvement Association (4%).
In August 2008, the NOP announced that 15 of 30 federally accredited organic certifiers had been placed on probation for various violations of USDA organic standards.
The NOP provides organic producers with resources to assist in becoming certified organic, including an organic program handbook (which includes guidance, certifier instructions, and policy memos), fact sheets, online training modules, and ways to identify accredited certifying agents. The NOP administers an Organic Certification Cost Share Program to help defray the costs to organic producers and processors of receiving certification. As of 2015, organic operations may receive up to 75% of their certification costs paid; not to exceed $750 per certification scope. There are two types of reimbursement: Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) which provides $900,000 and is available to crop and livestock producers in 16 participating states; and National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) which provides over $10 million and is available to all producers and handlers in all 50 states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.