In Canada, certification was implemented at the federal level on June 30, 2009. Mandatory certification is required for agricultural products represented as organic in import, export and inter-provincial trade, or that bear the federal organic logo. In Quebec, provincial legislation provides government oversight of organic certification within the province, through the Quebec Accreditation Board (Conseil D'Accréditation Du Québec).
Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods of organic farming – that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.
The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture known as the Green Revolution. Organic food production is a heavily regulated industry, distinct from private gardening.
Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food as organic within their borders. In the context of these regulations, organic food is food produced in a way that complies with organic standards set by national governments and international organizations.
Organic certification is a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, [food] processors, retailers and restaurants.
Requirements vary from country to country, and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:
- no human sewage sludge fertilizer used in cultivation of plants or feed of animals
- avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
- use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
- keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
- maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
- undergoing periodic on-site inspections.
In some countries, certification is overseen by the government, and commercial use of the term organic is legally restricted. Certified organic producers are also subject to the same agricultural, food safety and other government regulations that apply to non-certified producers.
To certify a farm, the farmer is typically required to engage in a number of new activities, in addition to normal farming operations:
- Study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
- Compliance — farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
- Documentation — extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
- Planning — a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
- Inspection — annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
- Fee — an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400 to $2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).
- Record-keeping — written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.
In addition, short-notice or surprise inspections can be made, and specific tests (e.g. soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested.
For first-time farm certification, the soil must meet basic requirements of being free from use of prohibited substances (synthetic chemicals, etc.) for a number of years. A conventional farm must adhere to organic standards for this period, often two to three years. This is known as being in transition. Transitional crops are not considered fully organic.
Certification for operations other than farms follows a similar process. The focus is on the quality of ingredients and other inputs, and processing and handling conditions. A transport company would be required to detail the use and maintenance of its vehicles, storage facilities, containers, and so forth. A restaurant would have its premises inspected and its suppliers verified as certified organic.
In some countries, organic standards are formulated and overseen by the government. The United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have comprehensive organic legislation, and the term "organic" may be used only by certified producers. Being able to put the word "organic" on a food product is a valuable marketing advantage in today's consumer market, but does not guarantee the product is legitimately organic. Certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and make buying organics easy. However, the organic labeling made possible by certification itself usually requires explanation. In countries without organic laws, government guidelines may or may not exist, while certification is handled by non-profit organizations and private companies.
Internationally, equivalency negotiations are underway, and some agreements are already in place, to harmonize certification between countries, facilitating international trade. There are also international certification bodies, including members of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) working on harmonization efforts. Where formal agreements do not exist between countries, organic product for export is often certified by agencies from the importing countries, who may establish permanent foreign offices for this purpose. In 2011 IFOAM introduced a new program - the IFOAM Family of Standards - that attempts to simplify harmonization. The vision is to establish the use of one single global reference (the COROS) to access the quality of standards rather than focusing on bilateral agreements.