by Melody Meyer

I have traveled to verdant areas of the country where the land sprouts red barns housing livestock and ancient well-oiled tractors. The farmers are sturdy, the roosters are colorful and all seems quite organic and pastoral. I have visited many such hardy salt-of- the-earth folk. I have trudged their furrows and bumped along in their four-by-fours, speaking about the price of broccoli and the forewarning of an early frost. Many do pledge to be organic, but when pressed, a few say that they are “beyond” and need not be certified—too much trouble, expense… and the paperwork, OY! Let’s be friendly and let thy neighborly-trust be our guide.

Red Barn FarmOrganic certification isn’t an easy process, but indeed it guarantees that the organic regulations are being followed with verification, inspection, and yes, record keeping. Let’s take a dive into the sometimes-murky waters of certification.

The process is varied by operation and is an in-depth, often arduous task that most consumers do not comprehend. All certified entities, be they farmers, manufacturers or distributors must outline an Organic Systems Plan, also affectionately called the “OSP.” This mighty document details the practices and procedures used by the operation to comply with the organic regulations. Organic farmers must outline what they will grow, where they will grow it, how they will obtain the seeds and what inputs will go into the soil. Organic pest and weed controls may only be applied. As their plans change, so must the OSP.

An organic manufacturer’s OSP must entail which certified ingredients and raw products they will use and outline the procedure for cooking, concocting and assembling their finished product. They must obtain current certifications from each producer they buy products from. Facilities must be clean and kept free of prohibited substances.

A certified organic distributor, such as UNFI, must also develop an OSP that takes into account the practices and procedures of everyone up the supply chain, including our own processes to produce and store organic goods. If anything changes as it is almost always does, our own OSP must be continuously updated.

All certified entities must apply for organic certification each year with an NOP accredited certification agency (ACA). They schedule a physical audit to verify the OSP is being followed exactly as it is written and in compliance with organic regulations. Inspectors are thorough—checking receipts, labels, ingredients, buffer zones, commercial availability of seeds, pest control practices, planting stock and shipping practices. This inspection is exhaustive, extensive and meticulous, no soil is left unturned.

For a certified organic distributor, like UNFI, the plot gets proverbially thicker and perhaps dippier with an exhaustive document called the Distributor Individual Product Information (DIPI). This far-reaching record is a list of all certified organic products that we carry. Changes to any of the products we carry must continuously be reflected and updated on this written text. Changes in ingredients, producers, labels, manufacturing methods, product composition, receiving, processing, pest control, storage, labeling and shipping, as well as practices to prevent commingling and contact with prohibited substances; all must be evaluated, cogitated and updated… continuously. It is an almost mind-boggling task, but it gets done.

Then the inspection takes place! The inspections customarily take 8-10 hours per facility to complete. There is a random review of all organic certificates for compliance. Then random products are selected and matched with their current organic certificates. An intricate trace-back procedure is performed to prevent organic fraud. A physical inspection of the facility occurs for sanitation, segregation, pest control—all to assure that the integrity of the organic product is protected throughout the entire process. Finally, a review of our Organic Systems Plan (OSP) is performed to verify that we are following the practices and procedures to produce and hold organic goods according to the standards.

Throughout the year, we must maintain updated certificates for every supplier, listing all products.  Any changes in ingredients or organic status must be noted and reflected in these certificates at all times.

When a new item is brought aboard, it is assigned a UNFI product number and then reviewed to ensure that proper documentation has been received to support the organic claim. This process includes a current organic certificate issued by an NOP accredited certification agency (ACA) listing the new product. The product labeling must match the description and degree of organic that is listed on the certificate because the manufacturer must properly label the product according to NOP rules. If the product is imported, an NOP import certificate must accompany it.

Healthy FoodSo the organic distributor is the final threshold of verification. To ensure the organic regulations all the way up and down the supply chain are being upheld and followed is no small task. An organic distributor is the mortar that binds the organic supply chain together.

Buying from a certified organic distributor ensures that organic products are produced without synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (GMO’s). We ensure the organic integrity for the entire 15,000 SKU’s that we sell.

Any time a customer wants a copy of our organic certificate, it is always available upon request. Doesn’t it make sense to buy from a certified organic entity all the way down the organic line? Support certified organic producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

You can check The Organic Integrity Data Base to see if your organic supplier is completely certified. Read more about the organic certification process from the National Organic Program Handbook

This article originally appeared on Organic Matters Blog, viewable here.