Who needs certification?

#Exemptions and exclusions

While most operations that farm, handle, or process organic products must be certified, there are a few exemptions within the USDA National Organic Program regulations.

  • Farms with annual gross sales of organic products totaling less than $5,000
  • Handlers with annual gross sales of organic products totaling less than $5,000
  • Operations that only handle “packaged” organic products that remain in the same package or container
  • Retail food operations (e.g., restaurants and retailers with a brick-and-mortar location)


While certification is not required for exempt operations, it is something you may choose to opt into if desired. By becoming certified, operations will be qualified to use the USDA organic seal, make organic label claims on the principal display panel, and more.

Operations falling under an exemption are still responsible for following all organic regulations — e.g., preventing commingling and contamination, recordkeeping, etc. — and must meet USDA NOP labeling requirements for products originating on exempt or excluded operations.

Exempt operations must not:

  • Display the USDA organic seal, any certifying agent’s seal or another identifying mark which represents the exempt or excluded operation as a certified organic operation.
  • Represent products as certified organic to any buyer
  • Have products identified or represented as “organic” in a product processed by others
  • Use the USDA organic seal on their label


Products or ingredients produced/handled by uncertified operations cannot be used as an organic ingredient in a product made by someone else. When operating under one of the USDA organic exemptions, make sure to maintain records that are sufficient to demonstrate compliance with organic regulations.

Organic certification is limited to agricultural or agriculturally-based products. As such, materials and other non-agriculturally produced products are excluded from being able to be certified organic. A few examples include:

  • Fertilizers
  • Sanitizers
  • Pest controls
  • Soil amendments
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals (including salt)
  • Fish and other aquatic species


For some operations, organic certification is optional. However, any operation that physically produces, processes, packages, re-packs, labels, or re-labels organic products — and does not qualify for an exemption — must be certified.

Types of operations considered optional for certification include:

Understanding qualifications
Think through your operation’s activities — not what you would tell a customer.

For example, you might tell a customer that your company produces organic juice drinks. As a certifier, OTCO would ask: Does your company physically process, package, or label the products, or is that something that you contract a co-packer to do for you? If you are only contracting the production, packaging, and/or labeling of organic products — and then sell the finished goods — you would be considered a “brand owner,” and not be required to obtain certification.

In another example, if you market your company as a retailer of organic spices, OTCO would ask: Do you only sell finished (packaged and labeled) products? If you are only selling the finished products, you are not required to obtain certification. If you are re-packing or labeling the products, you would be required to be certified.


Per the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, agricultural products sold or labeled as “organic,” “100 percent organic,” or “made with organic ingredients,” must “be produced only on certified organic farms and handled only through certified organic handling operations.”

More specifically, the following activities are required to be certified organic operations:

  • Farming of crops, goods, agricultural products, and livestock feed
  • Raising, selling, and auctioning livestock
  • Processing of agricultural, personal care, or fiber/textile products/ingredients
  • Packaging, re-packing, or labeling of organic products/ingredients

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