• Have Passport? (Organic Product) Will Travel
  • November 12, 2014 | Author: Marnie A. Jensen
  • Law Firm: Husch Blackwell LLP - Lincoln Office
  • In order to legally sell, label, or represent a product as “organic” in the United States, the product must comply with the USDA National Organic Program regulations (the “NOP”). In practice, this means that the production or handling operation must be certified by an accredited certifying agency (“ACA”), and that ACA will verify that each organic product—and the product’s organic label—is in full compliance with the NOP.*

    Organic certification to the NOP is a sort of “proof of citizenship” in the United States organic marketplace. The USDA organic certificate (issued by the ACA) is the “passport” that allows organic products to move from seller to buyer. Buyers and sellers of organic products within the U.S. are so familiar with the process that a copy of the organic certificate is often included in most upstream transactions automatically.

    What happens when a U.S. organic product wants to use that passport to travel internationally?

    Just like an American citizen traveling to a different country that requires a visa to enter, an American-made organic product may need to obtain additional certifications to get into another market. Some countries simply accept USDA organic certification, and essentially “stamp the passport” on the way into the country.

    Entry into some of the largest international markets for organic products requires a bit more than this, though. Full certification to another country’s organic standards were once required, but thankfully, the USDA has facilitated trade partnerships with the major organic markets of Canada, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan, and (as of July 1, 2014) Korea. These organic trade partnerships are often referred to in the organic industry as “equivalency agreements” or just “equivalency.”

    How does a product get that equivalency “visa?” In short, equivalency is an “add-on” to USDA-organic certification. The certified operation must apply for the equivalency through its ACA, and usually meet some “critical variances” to the USDA Organic Regulations. For example, the Canadian equivalency agreement does not allow products grown with sodium nitrate or hydroponic/aeroponic methods. The NOP allows hydroponic/aeroponic methods and limited sodium nitrate use. In practice, therefore, prior to issuing the operation an equivalency “visa” for a product to take a dream trip to Canada, the ACA must verify that the product complies with the NOP, and doesn’t violate these “critical variances” under the equivalency agreement.

    The equivalency agreements may also specify the scope of the agreement. Notably, the Korean equivalency only applies to “processed foods.” The equivalency agreements usually also specify various labeling requirements that must be followed while the “organic product-citizen” is traveling on its equivalency “visa.” These are just a few examples. Suffice it to say, the various equivalency agreements are complex!

    As with a human world traveler, an organic product being marketed in the ever-shrinking world takes careful planning and preparation. Getting the passport (USDA organic certification) for an organic product is only the first step. Prior to taking that “international trip of a lifetime” (entering the global market), the operation must get that passport stamped (obtaining the necessary equivalency “visa”). It’s not easy, but our Organic and Sustainable Agriculture team can help arrange the trip.

    Happy travels, organic product. Don’t forget your visa!

    *Of course, some exemptions and exclusions apply. See this presentation for more information.