Different Classes of Handling Operations & Their Certification Obligations

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The USDA National Organic Program just published new rules that effect who needs to be certified. If it’s not clear to you whether or not you’re required to be certified for your handling activities, this article is for you!

It helps to start with the way in which the organic regulations define certain actors in the organic product supply chain and the scope of activities conducted by those actors. The following definitions are taken from the new regulatory text of the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” rules that must be implemented by March 19, 2024.

From the ‘Definitions’ Portion of the organic regulations, taken from 7CFR § 205.2:

Handle: To sell, process, or package agricultural products, including but not limited to trading, facilitating sale or trade on behalf of a seller or oneself, importing to the United States, exporting for sale in the United States, combining, aggregating, culling, conditioning, treating, packing, containerizing, repackaging, labeling, storing, receiving, or loading.

Handler: Any person that handles agricultural products, except final retailers of agricultural products that do not process agricultural products.

Handling operation: Any operation that handles agricultural products, except final retailers of agricultural products that do not process agricultural products.

Label: A display of written, printed, or graphic material on the immediate container of an agricultural product or any such material affixed to any agricultural product or affixed to a bulk container containing an agricultural product, except for package liners or a display of written, printed, or graphic material which contains only information about the weight of the product.

Labeling: All written, printed, or graphic material accompanying an agricultural product at any time or written, printed, or graphic material about the agricultural product displayed at retail stores about the product.

Processing: Cooking, baking, curing, heating, drying, mixing, grinding, churning, separating, extracting, slaughtering, cutting, fermenting, distilling, eviscerating, preserving, dehydrating, freezing, chilling, or otherwise manufacturing and includes the packaging, canning, jarring, or otherwise enclosing food in a container.

Organic Importer: The operation responsible for accepting imported organic agricultural products within the United States and ensuring NOP Import Certificate data are entered into the U.S. Customs and Border Protection import system of record.

Organic Exporter: The final certified exporter of the organic agricultural product, who facilitates the trade of, consigns, or arranges for the transport/shipping of the organic agricultural product from a foreign country to the United States.

I don’t manufacture organic products. What kind of handler am I, and am I required to be certified organic?

While the above definitions from the organic regulations may make it clear that certain types of handlers that process or manufacture organic products must be certified, what may not be clear are the roles of other types of handling operations in the Organic Supply Chain. Are handlers who do not manufacture organic products also required to be certified? In many cases, yes. Below is a list of different types of handlers who may be involved in the organic supply chain, information on how they’re commonly defined in the organic industry, and their obligations with regard to becoming certified organic. If you do not see the type of operation you manage included in this list, contact OneCert to talk more about whether or not your handling operation is required to be certified or would benefit from organic certification.

Brokers: Brokers do not own and never physically handle organic products, but they do arrange sales and shipping between two parties–generally an organic seller and an organic buyer–for a fee. Brokers often act as importers as well, arranging transportation between the seller’s location and the buyer’s location and taking care of customs paperwork. Now that the new “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” rule has passed, brokers are required to be certified organic by March 19, 2024, the date the new rule must be fully implemented for all operations that will now require certification. Brokers will benefit from seeking organic certification as soon as possible to ensure they are certified by the implementation deadline. Getting certified can significantly reduce the amount of paperwork brokers need to transmit to a buyer about their organic suppliers. Certification may mean that the broker does not have to disclose the supplier to the final buyer, thereby protecting their source and preventing the buyer from by-passing the broker to purchase product from the supplier directly. However, brokers who seek certification must still disclose information on their organic suppliers to their certifying agency.

Traders: Traders are similar to brokers in that they find buyers for organic products, however, unlike brokers, traders often purchase and re-sell organic products. Though they take ownership of the organic goods, they do not typically take physical possession. Like brokers, traders must become certified organic by the March 19, 2024 deadline in order to continue trading in organic products. In some cases, traders may take physical possession. Traders are currently required to be certified if they take possession of any agricultural products that are not enclosed in tamper evident packaging or sealed tamper-evident containers. For example, if a trader buys organic grains and takes possession of bulk organic grains in a semi trailer that is then transferred to a different semi trailer or into a storage bin, they are currently required to seek certification under regulation § 205.101(b)(1)(i),(ii).

Importers & Exporters: Importers bring organic products into the country for further trade, while exporters send products out of the country for further trade. Like brokers, importers are not currently required to seek certification, though that will change under the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” regulations that will take effect March 19, 2024. Like brokers, importers will also benefit from seeking certification immediately. Buyers who purchase products from a certified organic importer are assured that a certifying agency reviews the documentation associated with imported products to verify that the supply chain leads back to a certified organic producer or manufacturer in another country. Exporters are also required to seek certification under the the rules taking effect in 2024. Many trade arrangements with the US already require brokers to be certified in order to obtain the mandatory export documentation that is required by buyers in the U.S. Exporters from the US are also currently required to be certified if they send products to certain countries/regions with whom the US has a trade arrangement. For example, if an organic operation in the US wishes to export organic products to countries/regions like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the U.K., or the EU, they are required to obtain signed organic export documents from their certifying agency. The implementation of the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” rules means that those exporting products to the US must obtain a signed NOP Import Certificate from their certifying agent prior to exporting a product. Upon importing a product to the US, the certified organic importer must enter the information on the NOP Import Certificate into a Customs and Border Protection database called ACES that will track all organic products imported into the US.

Service Providers: Service Providers do not manufacture organic products, but may provide services to organic operations like storing organic products, cleaning grain, transloading, or providing logistical services. If a service provider performs a process on organic products (examples: grain cleaning, high-pressure pasteurization), they are required to be certified because what they do falls under the definition of “processing” in the organic regulations. If a service provider does not process organic products, whether or not they are required to seek certification depends on their answers to two questions: 1.) Is the product handled by the service provider already retail packaged or in a sealed tamper-evident container? 2.) Does the product handled by the service remain enclosed in that packaging or container? If the answer is ‘no’ to either of these questions, certification is required. For example, a transloading operation that unloads grain from trucks and loads it into railcars is required to be certified because the grain is moved out of its original un-sealed container (the truck) and placed in another container (the railcar). In the case of storage operations, if the storage operation stores bulk, unpackaged grain, or unsealed bulk liquid totes, it is required to be certified. However, if organic products arrive at a storage facility in sealed retail or sealed tamper-evident packaging, and they remain in that container during storage, then the storage facility is not required to be certified, though they will still derive many benefits from becoming certified. If a logistics firm transports organic livestock, the hauler is required to be certified organic since the product (livestock) is not in “packaging” and may need to be loaded and reloaded for feeding and rest periods which may compromise the organic integrity of the livestock.

Private Label Brand Owners & Distributors: Private Label Brand Owners & most Distributors are not required to be certified at this time and are not required to seek certification under the “SOE” rules. Private Label Brand Owners & Distributors perform no processing or labeling of organic products themselves, but rather, they have their products manufactured and labeled for them by a certified organic co-packer. The products are certified organic under the certification of the co-packing facility. Private Label Brand Owners and Distributors may then distribute the product to vendors or offer them for retail sale themselves. Distributors of products are, however, required to seek certification under the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” regulations if they distribute products which are not labeled for retail sale or are not enclosed in sealed, tamper-evident packaging. For example, if a distributor sells produce in waxed cardboard boxes, that distributor is required to seek certification because the produce is not in a sealed, tamper evident container and could easily become contaminated or commingled with non-organic products.

Re-packers & Labelers: Businesses that re-package organic products or label them as organic are all required to seek organic certification. Both packaging and labeling are considered handling activities that require certification under the organic standards.

Retailers : Retail sellers of organic products, like grocery stores, who do not otherwise process products are exempt from certification but must comply with the requirements in the organic regulations for recordkeeping, the prevention of commingling, and contact with prohibited substances. Retailers who process products at the point of sale (like preparing a sandwich from organic ingredients at a deli counter) are also not required to seek certification.

Please reach out to OneCert if you have additional questions about handling activities performed by your business. We are happy to answer your questions!

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