Category Archives : Organic

Organic Shell Game

My opinion of the USDA organic program after over 10 years of active involvement is pretty good. The improvements over the last 6 years with increased investment has resulted in better enforcement and management. Compared to the US record with Food Safety and spacecraft blowing up, you rarely hear about huge fraud in the organic program. This is why I am completely baffled by the failure of the USDA to address this issue for over 10 years.

You can still market an organic product under your own company name and address as the “Distributor” without being certified. There are certification agencies that will “Add” your brand to their contract manufacturers’ product list, but you will not be listed with the USDA. The big problem with this is that MANY innovative new products are contract manufactured in the organic sector. Contract manufacturing is basically a big part of the processed food industry. For some reason, it is not considered “Handling” to be responsible for product formulation, package design, marketing, selling or shipping product. Only if you actually make it are you required to be certified.

The USDA has been aware of this for many years and issued memos on certification transparency that the should cover this. Even the memo from the USDTJoilA on who needs to be certified seems pretty tough, but the practices listed above are not required activities. At least large private label operators like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are trying to make the certificate chain transparent by certifying their store private label products so they can be traced back to the manufacturer through the USDA Organic Integrity Website. Try looking up your Boutique Organic spread on this same website and see if they actually are certified.

Since all certified entities are required to register suppliers with the certification agency, it means organic product can be traced back through third parties in the USDA organic program. This is what creates program integrity and customer confidence. It benefits the Brand holder by being able to manage their packaging independently and allows them to provide their own organic marketing certificate to customers, instead of one in the manufacturer’s name. Brand Holder certification also benefits the consumers confidence in the organic program and your product by being able to trace the organic integrity.

The USDA once again in 2015 backed down on making brand holders get certification because certification agencies said it would cause problems for clients. Since the USDA still provide up to $750 a year to cover certification, it cannot be a huge financial burden. Why must this one small dark corner of organic certification persist after 10 years of an active program?




Changing Organic Certification Agencies

4colorsealJPGAs a business grows, the needs of that business change and may require rethinking long-standing relationships. These may include changes in ownership, manufacturing, management or marketing. Your certification agency is a partner in the marketing of your product. Their name appears right on your packaging you hand to every customer. Also, since these agencies change over time, they may be the driving factor needing to change certification agencies.

When it becomes clear that the service, communication or support of your certification agency no longer meets the needs of a growing business, approaching a change should be well thought out. The USDA memo NOP 2038 covers a list of instructions and rules for making this change. It does not, however, clearly spell out the risks and pitfalls. For many companies, the internal changes or material costs far outweigh years of certification fees when making this decision.

The USDA does not allow companies to package product with a certification agency named on the product unless the company currently holds a certificate from the named agency. What is the trick to changing the packaging on exactly the same day you change certification agencies? In reality, most companies will hold dual certification for a period of time to enable using up packaging. This can be a troublesome time with two competing agencies inspecting and regulating your business.

One of the basic regulations of the USDA National Organic Program is to respect the decisions of other agencies. This means if one agency gives you a non-compliance, the other must respect and enforce it. When changing agencies, it is important to stay in good standing with the old agency until you are ready to voluntarily surrender their certification. They can stop you from becoming certified by the new agency or even suspend you from the program after receiving new certification.

Plan the change around the needs for packaging updates so that the new certification agency name can be incorporated into the designs. This process can take 3 to 6 months or more. If you have had a bad experience with renewing your certification, start planning the change now. Do not wait until the next renewal. Most agencies only give you 90 days notice about renewal. That will not be enough time to coordinate the change.

The National Organic Program regulations are guidelines for certification management and enforcement. There is often much room for interpretation by the certification agency about how to handle issues. If in question about a decision, seek out another agency or certification adviser for a second opinion. Certification agencies cannot give you advice but they can tell you what is allowed. I have seen an agency go to bat with the USDA against other certification agencies to bail clients out of a bind.

Do the research early and do it thoroughly to protect your organic certification status before trying to change certification agencies.