The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was created by Congress in 1990 in an attempt to set specific standards for growing, processing and handling foods labeled "organic". The final rules were completed and implemented in 1994. Prior to the implementation of the NOP, any product could use the term "organic" on it's label, and there were so many conflicting and suspect definitions of the term that it had become meaningless.
At its heart, USDA Organic means that synthetic chemical inputs are not used to grow your food or added later during processing. The NOP maintains a list (called "Section 606" or the "National List") of approved organic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, additives and processing agents that are allowed in organic food, meat and (soon) body care products.
There are several variations on organic label claims, including "100% organic" (just like it sounds), "Organic" meaning at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, "Made with Organic" (meaning at least 70% of ingredients are organic, and, finally, simply listing the organic ingredients on the ingredient panel. An advisory panel called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is charged with recommending policy changes and additions to the NOP to the Secretary of Agriculture, who is responsible for administering the program. The NOSB is made up of representatives from growers, processors, retailers and citizen's groups to ensure that final rules are fair, reasonable and enforceable.
An organic farm, food processor or distributor must request official certification to become a USDA Certified Organic grower, processor, or handler. Certification is granted by a third party USDA-accredited certifying agency. The certifying agency first determines if the Organic System Plan (OSP) for the applicant is compliant with the law and is consistent with the physical characteristics of the operation. Once the plan is approved, a thorough inspection is completed each year to confirm the plan is being fully and correctly implemented. An Organic Certified grower, processor, or handled is certified for a particular list of organic products. This list is attached to the official Organic Certification and subsequent renewal documents.
Natural Grocers stores are USDA certified organic handlers. Although retailers are not required to become certified handlers, we feel it is important to our customers to confirm through this third party audit that our handling practices do in fact protect your organic foods from seed to farm to table. You can buy produce labeled "organic" from any run-of-the-mill market, but you can't be sure it has not been contaminated, commingled, or mixed up with other things you really don't want to eat.