Certification standards establish the requirements that organic production and handling operations must meet to become accredited by USDA-accredited certifying agents. The information that an applicant must submit to the certifying agent includes the applicant's organic system plan. This plan describes (among other things) practices and substances used in production, record keeping procedures, and practices to prevent commingling of organic and non-organic products. The certification standards also address on-site inspections.
Producers and handling (processing) operations that sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification. They may label their products organic if they abide by the standards, but they cannot display the USDA Organic seal. Retail operations, such as grocery stores and restaurants, do not have to be certified.
Accreditation standards establish the requirements an applicant must meet in order to become a USDA-accredited certifying agent. The standards are designed to ensure that all organic certifying agents act consistently and impartially. Successful applicants will employ experienced personnel, demonstrate their expertise in certifying organic producers and handlers, and prevent conflicts of interest and maintain strict confidentiality.
Imported agricultural products may be sold in the United States if they are certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents. Imported products must meet the NOP standards. USDA has accredited certifying agents in several foreign countries.
In lieu of USDA accreditation, a foreign entity also may be accredited when USDA "recognizes" that its government is able to assess and accredit certifying agents as meeting the requirements of the NOP called a recognition agreement.