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How To Get Ready For Organic Certification

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The USDA has published a new regulation to “Strengthen Organic Enforcement” (SOE). The SOE states that “more types of businesses in the organic supply chain must be certified organic.” Among the new provisions is the requirement that facilities that “handle” or store organic products, such as distribution centers and warehouses, must be organic certified.

USDA expects that most DCs will not be exempt since not all organic products are in tamper-evident packages. So, facilities have less than a year to get certified.

As part of their food safety partnership, NGA and Ecolab hosted a recent webinar to review the new regulations and discuss how they will impact DCs and warehouses, explain the exemptions and go over the steps required to achieve certification.

Webinar speakers included Joelle Mosso, senior director of technical and regulatory affairs for the Organic Trade Association, and Scott Rice, OTA’s regulatory director.

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion: 

Why the new rule? The organic market has grown along with demand for organic products amid increasingly complex global supply chains. Gaps and weaknesses in supply chain transparency present opportunities for fraud. The new rule aims to clarify regulations governing the flow of organic products from source to consumer and uphold the integrity of USDA organic certification.

How soon do you have to be ready? Operations and certifying agents must comply with new requirements by March 19, 2024. This includes currently certified operations as well as uncertified operations that are required to become certified as a result of this final rule, including storage/DC facilities, importers, exporters, certain brokers and traders.

What qualifies as a “retail establishment?” Restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries, grocery stores or any retail business with a restaurant, delicatessen, bakery, salad bar, bulk food self-service station or other eat-in, carry-out, mail-order or delivery service of raw or processed agricultural product.

What does it mean to “handle” a product? To sell, process or package agricultural products, including but not limited to trading, facilitating sale or trade on behalf of a seller or oneself, importing to the United States, exporting for sale in the United States, combining, aggregating, culling, conditioning, treating, packing, containerizing, repackaging, labeling, storing, receiving or loading.

What about “processing?” Pretty much any changes to the product: cooking, baking, curing, heating, drying, mixing, grinding, churning, separating, extracting, slaughtering, cutting, fermenting, distilling, eviscerating, preserving, dehydrating, freezing, chilling or otherwise manufacturing and includes the packaging.

Who’s exempt from the new regulation? Exempt operators include small producers and handlers selling less than $5,000 of products a year, retailers that sell directly to end users and do not process, or retailers that process and sell in the same location, and basically anyone that moves product along but doesn’t open or process it.

Do retailers need to be certified? Retailers that do not process are exempt, but they still must comply with organic requirements concerning handling, commingling, contamination and labeling. Retailers that process are exempt but must comply as above plus maintain records for three years documenting organic provenance of ingredients.

What if I’m not sure? The OTA can help you: https://www.ota.com/advocacy/critical-issues/new-standards-update-strengthening-organic-enforcement/are-you-soe-ready. Additional resources are at https://ota.com/advocacy/organic-standards/organic-certification/resources-retailers

For more exclusive insights, view the complete webinar at https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/recording/4467360156859972010.

More information about NGA’s food safety partnership with Ecolab is at https://www.nationalgrocers.org/m/food-safety/.

About the author

Jim Dudlicek

Director, Communications and External Affairs at NGA

Jim Dudlicek is Managing Editor and Content Strategist at NGA. The National Grocers Association is the trade association representing the U.S. independent community supermarket industry. NGA members include retail and wholesale grocers located in every congressional district across the country, as well as state grocers’ associations, manufacturers and service suppliers.

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