USDA Organic Seal Tips for Retailers

As an organic retailer, it's best to first understand all the basic USDA Organic Seal rules. The same rules that apply to other producers and operations also apply to retailers.

Does correct labeling matter if the retailer is not certified?

While it's true that organic certification is a choice, and not at all mandatory for retail establishments that carry organic products, you still need to think about proper labeling rules.

In general, the National Organic Program (NOP) states that organic retailers are responsible for preventing commingling and contamination of organic products with prohibited substances and retailers must keep solid records that show how organic products have been correctly handled from production through delivery to the customer. Part of handling is proper labeling. Not being certified doesn't mean you get to ignore signage and labels.

Do retailers have to use the organic seal?

Use of the official USDA Organic Seal, even on 100% organic products is voluntary. Retailers don't have to use the label, but there are major benefits to doing so, for example:

  • Consumers want to buy real organics.
  • Customers will understand why the products are priced higher.
  • The Organic Seal is well-known and has marketing benefits.
  • When given a choice, most savvy organic consumers will not choose non-labeled organics over labeled.
  • Organics can be a major draw into your establishment.

Do organic labeling policies apply to packaged goods?

Often when retailers think of organics, produce springs to mind right away. It's true, labeling policy does apply to loose and packaged produce. National organic standards surrounding organic products apply to all organic products, not just produce.

If you're following labeling laws correctly, you must also consider packaged goods, such as coffee, flour, cereal and juice, bulk foods in bins and other organic products, certified organic textiles, or officially labeled certified organic body care.

How should retailers label bulk organics?

If your store buys organic bulk products and sells them in bins, you can post signs saying the product is organic so long as the information is provided in the original container or shipping documents. For example, if the original shipping packaging carries the USDA Organic Seal, you can post that information on a bulk bin containing the product.

Again, retailers are not required to post that a product is organic, but it's in their best interest to.

How should retailers label exempt organic products?

Before you worry about how to handle products that are exempt, make sure they're really exempt.

If you do purchase locally grown (or not locally grown) organic products from a small-scale organic farm or other produce who is truly exempt from organic certification, you can still label these products, but carefully.

National Organic Standards § 205.310 states, that any agricultural product organically produced or handled on an exempt or excluded operation is not allowed to carry the USDA seal, a certifying agent's seal or any other identifying mark which represents the exempt or excluded operation as certified organic. The product can also not be represented as certified organic to any buyer.

What you can do is identify the product as "organic." Exempt organic products can't be processed by your establishment and still be called "organic." For example, if you make potato salad to serve in your grocery deli with organic, but exempt potatoes, and other organic ingredients, you cannot call the potato salad organic.

The processing rule applies to both multi-ingredients and single ingredients. If you squeeze juice with organic, but exempt oranges, you can't sell that juice as organic.

Can deli food be labeled as organic?

According to National Organic Standards § 205.309 if you have a deli, juice bar or bakery in your retail establishment that makes its own various multi-ingredient products using certified organic ingredient, such as salads, soups, breads, and so forth, you may not label these end-goods with the USDA Organic Seal or make any labeling claims that would lead a buyer to believe that the product is "certified organic."

If the product is made with at least 70% to 95% organic ingredients you can note on the packaging that the product is "made with (specified organic ingredients)," but no more than three ingredients can be listed. For example, if your bakery bakes cinnamon rolls you could say on the packaging, "Made with organic flour, eggs, and milk."

Where are the official USDA organic labeling policies located?

Organic policy is always changing so it's smart to stay up-to-date. To read through the most current organic labeling policies, visit The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR) part 205 National Organic Program. Subpart D includes labels, labeling, and marketing information that's useful for retailers, specifically 205.300 through 205.311.

The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, along with information you obtain from your local accredited certifying agent is the most up-to-date and useful information available.

This information is current as of January 29, 2012.