USDA’s new organic enforcement rules trigger surge in certifications

To ensure the USDA Organic seal maintains its value as the market grows, nearly every entity in the organic supply chain must be certified. Find out how it’s going.

April 16, 2024

4 Min Read
USDA’s new organic enforcement rules trigger surge in certifications, but retailers are not required to be certified.

At a Glance

  • The USDA's new Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule was implemented March 19, after a 14-month educational effort.
  • In the first three months of 2024, the National Organic Program processed 755 new certifications, up from 207 a year earlier.
  • The certification process can take up to six months after an application is submitted, according to certifiers.

The National Organic Program’s (NOP) new Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule was implemented March 19, after a 14-month educational effort, and the results have been very positive, according to the NOP’s Jennifer Tucker.

Tucker, the deputy administrator of USDA NOP, told OPN Connect this month that she is “very pleased” with the level of compliance. She noted that in the first three months of 2024, NOP processed 755 new handler certifications compared with 207 in the same time period a year ago. “That tells us a lot of folks are getting the message,” she said. “To go from about 200 to 750 in year-over-year growth tells us we are in the stage of acceptance.”

Tucker said that anytime there is a huge rule change—and she said the SOE regs definitely fit that descriptor—the industry goes through specific stages prior to compliance. “First there is a grieving phase, then a bargaining phase, and finally acceptance,” she said, adding that not everyone has reached that final stage yet. “There are still folks working through that process, and it will take time, but I am pleased with the progress.”

For the past 14 months, NOP officials have been spreading the word about the new regulations by holding webinars and speaking at industry events. Tucker believes that the vast majority of industry players have gotten the message, which basically was that virtually everyone on the supply chain that handles organic product must be certified. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. She added that in almost all cases, there are two ways to become compliant: become certified or stop handling organic produce. She knows that some handlers—most likely very small players—have stopped handling organic produce because of the perceived difficulty and/or the cost of achieving certification.

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Tucker knows many companies are still in the process of achieving certification as many certifiers are at capacity. Currently, certifiers are reporting that it is taking anywhere from two to six months from application to certification.

The number of new handler certifications is an important barometer, but it is not the only measure by which to gauge compliance. Tucker said another important data point is the number of valid import certificates that are accompanying loads of organic product being shipped to the United States. The new SOE rules require all organic imports to the U.S. market to be declared as organic and be associated with an NOP Import Certificate, typically generated by the certifier. This rule was designed to improve traceability and oversight of organic imports into the United States. The SOE rule also requires all importers and exporters to be certified.

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“We are seeing over 80% compliance, which is very good at the beginning of implementation of any new rule,” said Tucker, adding that in most cases an invalid certificate is reflective of procedural issues, not that the product itself is mislabeled.

Of course, there are also companies that are either ignoring the rules or, inexplicably, uninformed. “We have a standardized escalation process to deal with companies not in compliance,” said the NOP administrator. “The first step is a warning letter.”

Tucker revealed that the NOP has mailed out about 400 warning letters in the first few weeks of implementation. The letter does not call for action on the part of the offending company but informs them of their obligations under the new rules. That letter is generating a lot of responses, with many of those companies reporting that they are in the process of achieving certification but haven’t received it yet.

The second step of compliance is a letter demanding a response. NOP wants to make sure companies handling organic produce are either certified or close to it. Tucker said there will continue to be a lenient approach while companies work through the process.

“A cease-and-desist notice is another legal tool at our disposal,” she said, adding that the next step involves the imposing of civil penalties.

Tucker said she wanted to give a shout-out to the customs broker community for being an excellent ally from early in the SOE implementation process. She revealed that NOP worked diligently to inform this group of the new regulations through webinars and other outreach programs. She said customs brokers have been “pushing compliance” and are often making sure that the loads have the required import certificate.

Retail distribution centers initially resisted the organic certification requirement. Retail stores are not required to be certified, and previously, many supermarket warehouses were not certified. As a group, retailers appeared to be in the “bargaining” stage of acceptance for quite some time. An exemption in the new SOE rules allows for a handler to move organic product that is enclosed in sealed, tamper-evident packaging. To avoid the need for certification, some retailers were exploring the option of requiring suppliers to provide all their organic produce in such packaging.

But Tucker the tide shifted as retailers realized that if they handled such bulk products as organic bananas and watermelons, two items that don’t lend themselves to tamper proof packaging, they would have to be certified. She indicated that many retail distribution centers have achieved organic certification or are in the process of doing so.


This article originally appeared on Organic Produce Network, a New Hope Network sister website. Visit the site for information and education relevant to the organic produce industry.

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