How To Become USDA Organic Certified

Posted by Alexa Ketterling

how to become organic certified

Are you a food manufacturer serving the natural food industry and you are not already doing organics you have probably wondered the following:

What would it take to get organic certified? Is it worth it?

Our sales manager, Hannah, sat down with our quality control department and our warehouse manager to ask just a few questions. She wanted to find out precisely what it takes to get USDA Organic Certified. 

The items that were asked were:

  • How challenging is it?
  • What is the process of becoming organic certified?
  • What can the warehouse expect?
  • What can purchasing expect?
  • How long is it going to take us?

The answers, along with an analysis of the target market, will help you answer the big question: is it worth it for your business?


The Process To Becoming Organic Certified

To become certified, there are several pre-emptive, significant picture steps your business will need to take. First, you will need to source organically certified ingredients. Your supply chain will need to be set up to document this fact, including both by collecting paperwork and tracing lot codes for each component.

You will also need to produce your products in an organic certified food production plant - whether your own or by a co-packer. If it is your own, you will need to go through all the steps to get your facility organic complaint. The primary concern here is the remove any risk for cross-contamination with non-organic products. If your plant only processes organic products, you may have it slightly easier than if you have both conventional and organic product lines. Please note: if you are working with a co-packer, it is a bit simpler: you need to choose a co-packer who is already certified for organic work.

If you are not opting for a co-packer, you'll need to go through the process of getting organic certified. You can expect paperwork and process review on both the purchasing and production side, as well as a facility audit. The purchasing side of things you will need to provide your suppliers' documentation, show your traceability process, prove that this is followed and upheld on every lot tracked. On the production side, you will need to document each of your production and quality processes, show that you are upholding practices that will keep from cross-contamination, as well as making sure that you are using all organic compliant materials, packaging, soaps, etc.

Please make note that in the end, you will also be having a facility audit to show that your purchasing and production processes are in place. This will also allow them to do a full review of any other details that might relate to your ingredients or facility.

For all of this, you do have to pay for this certification. The total price will depend on how complex your process is, and will also have a large variance-based by state.


Steps Of USDA Organic Certification Process

Do you want to find out more details about what exactly the process looks like? This is how the USDA describes the three most critical key phases of the certification:


Desk Audit:

Initial accreditation processes is a documentation adequacy review to evaluate the compliance of the applicant quality manual with the National Organic Program (NOP) regulatory parameters. The process begins once a completed application is sent and received by the NOP, and an auditor is assigned. This process can take up to three months.


Pre-Decision Assessment:

Once NOP has determined the desk audit is satisfactory, NOP staff conducts a pre-decisional on-site assessment. This is to review your organization's key activities, conduct witness inspections, interview staff, contractors, and possibly review certification files. Once a successful assessment has been finalized, the NOP accreditation committee makes a recommendation to the AMS administrator to approve accreditation. As noted, NOP provides detailed information about the complete accreditation process, including on-site assessments and continued certification. The process can take up to six months.


Post-Accreditation Requirements:

Once approved, your organization will be accredited for five years. To ensure compliance, an additional on-site assessment is conducted around the two and half year mark. Renewing ACAs will require on-site assessments before renewal around the five-year mark. These assessments are performed by the NOP and are subject to the costs described above.


How Challenging Is It To Get Organic Certified?

A subjective answer usually depends on if your facility is already only organic, and if you've already sourced all of your organic ingredients.

About the other certifications to keep it in perspective, it is about equivalent to a 3rd party audit.

The good news is that if you are getting Non-GMO Project Verified, this process is much easier if you have an organic certificate already in place. Already having developed your traceability and cross-contamination avoidance processes, so you are ahead of the game.


What Can My Warehouse Expect?

The warehouse can expect that the USDA will do an extremely detailed review of all processes. Anything that would be documented in a 3rd party audit in terms of health and safety will be reviewed. Even if you know your process and have them set-up in your warehouse, they will need to be written out to be valid.

They also want to see how you are tracking your packaging and ingredient lots and how you are avoiding cross-contamination. So expect to write a lot, and to do this long before the certifiers arrive.

detailed warehouse audit

Your warehouse can also expect to have an in-person facility audit. A USDA NOP staff member (or member of an organic certifying agency) will be assigned to do a site inspection, and they will check all health practices, purchasing, and traceability systems.

Everything that you use in your warehouse and offices has to be approved by the association for use in a certified organic facility. For example, if you decide that you want to buy a specific soap for handwashing stations in your production area, it has to be approved by the USDA organic certifying agency. They thoroughly review each facility, including production lines, manufacturing inputs, packaging, safety, and hygiene.

Expect this audit to take up a full business day.  Manufacturers who produce a product with multiple different inputs may have a more in-depth audit that would take longer.


What Should My Purchasing Team Expect?

Your purchasing department should expect a full and detailed inspection of paperwork. Your organic certifier will be checking you have been documenting your suppliers' up-to-date and valid organic certifications. They also review all paperwork related to your ingredients input, packaging inputs, and traceability of all of your production and outgoing products.

They also audit your purchasing system to make sure that you have a buying process set-up that is traceable, measured, and consistent.


How Long Will It Take To Get Our Organic Certification?

The process is less about the time it takes to get the certification into your hands and more about the time that it takes to set-up and confirm all of those big-picture processes and policies. As well as secure a reliable and dependable organic ingredient supply chain.

Of course, once these processes are set-up, you'll then need to request the certification and pay the fee. Once that is done, you will have to wait for an auditor to visit, and then the final time for them to process your paperwork and release your statement. So make sure to give yourself some time to complete this certification.

On average, this process ranges from 1 month to 1 year, depending on how much of the back end process you need to set up and perfect first.


Is Getting Organic Certified Worth It?

The question that you will need to answer is really for your company on whether it is genuinely worth it or not. If you are new to the industry serving the natural and organic market trying to sell into Whole Foods or Costco, chances are much higher that it will be worth the time and cost.

Being organic allows your products to very and typically gives you more demand from larger businesses. If you've tracked Costco's trends over the last few years, almost all of their brands are going organic to serve a larger market and provide more value.

The trade-off of this is that getting organic certified is going to cost more, but in the end, prices for your product will be higher to make up for that cost.  You will likely make the same as you would if it was a conventional product.

Of course, to make the final decision or call, you will need to do a full business review to determine if this is right for your target market and product category.

Topics: Quality Control



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