Organic Pet Foods

James A. Riddle
Endowed chair in Agricultural Systems
University of Minnesota

Proceedings of Petfood Forum 2004
March 29-31
Chicago, IL, USA

Sales of organic pet foods in the US continue to grow-even in a down economy. Data from SPINS shows sales increased by 55% in 1999 to $20.7 million and rose another 13.8% to $29.4 million in 2001. Will this growth continue? What does it take to get pet food certified organic? The article below provides an understandable explanation of the regulations and labeling requirements for organic foods, and discusses their implications for organic pet foods, so that you can better assess your options for entering this exciting market.

Some background - The Organic Foods Production Act

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. The OFPA required the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet a consistent standard. The OFPA became fully operational when the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule was implemented on October 21, 2002. The regulations require that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms and handling operations certified by a State or private entity that has been accredited by the USDA.

NOP background

The NOP developed national organic standards and established an organic certification program based on recommendations of the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB is appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and is comprised of representatives from the following categories: organic farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent.

In addition to considering NOSB recommendations, USDA reviewed State, private and foreign organic certification programs to help formulate the regulations. The NOP regulations are flexible enough to accommodate the wide range of operations and products grown and raised in every region of the US. Many foreign products are also now being certified as compliant with the NOP regulation.

NOP regulations

The NOP regulations require proactive, preventative practices for crop, livestock, and handling operations. Examples of required practices include soil building crop rotations, appropriate housing and outdoor access for livestock, and structural pest management for processing operations. The regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering (excluded methods), ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.

As a general rule, natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic crop and livestock production, and synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulation, contains the specific exceptions to the rule. Based on recommendations of the NOSB, certain synthetic substances, such as pheremones, are allowed for organic crop and livestock production, and certain natural substances, such as arsenic, are prohibited.

The National List of substances allowed in processed food is structured differently. In order to be used in or on a processed product, the substance must appear on the National List, regardless of whether the substance is synthetic or non-synthetic.

Agricultural operations affected

Any crop, wild crop, livestock, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced must adhere to the national organic standards. Handling operations include processors and manufacturers of organic products. The requirements include operating under an organic system plan approved by an accredited certifying agent and using materials in accordance with the National List.

Operations that sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification and preparing an organic system plan, but they must operate in compliance with the regulations in order to label their products as organic. Retail food establishments that sell organically produced agricultural products do not need to be certified.

Process-based standards

The national organic standards address the methods, practices, and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and processed agricultural products. The requirements apply to the way the product is created and handled, not to measurable properties of the product itself. Although specific practices and materials used by organic operations may vary, the standards require every aspect of organic production and handling to comply with the provisions of OFPA and the rule.

Crop standards

The organic crop production standards say that:

Land will have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop. The use of genetic engineering (excluded methods), ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited. Soil fertility and crop nutrients must be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials, naturally mined substances, and allowed synthetic materials.

Crop farmers must use of organic seeds and planting stock, when commercially available, but a farmer may use untreated non-organic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions. Crop pests, weeds and diseases are controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.

Steps must be taken to minimize risks of contamination from prohibited substances used on adjoining fields. While organic farmers are not required to convert all of their land to organic production, measures must be implemented to prevent the commingling of organic and non-organic crops.

Livestock standards

The livestock standards apply to animals used for meat, milk, eggs and other animal products represented as organically produced. The livestock standards say that:

Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation, or no later than the second day of life for poultry. Organic livestock producers are required to feed 100% organic feed. They may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements. Producers may convert an entire, distinct dairy herd to organic production by providing 80% organically produced feed for nine months, followed by three months of 100% organically produced feed.

Organically raised animals may not be given hormones to promote growth or antibiotics for any reason. The feeding of slaughter by-products is strictly prohibited. Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines, are used to keep animals healthy. Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.

All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal's stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.

Handling standards

The handling standards say that:

Organic handlers must use mechanical or biological processing methods. All non-agricultural ingredients, whether synthetic or non-synthetic, must be included on the National List (205.605).

Handlers must implement structural pest management practices that rely on exclusion, sanitation, removal of pest habitat and food sources, trapping, and monitoring. If pesticides are applied, organic ingredients, products, and packaging materials must be removed from the treated area. Records must be maintained to verify the protection of organic integrity.

Handlers must prevent the commingling of organic with non-organic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances. In a processed product labeled as "organic," all agricultural ingredients must be organically produced, unless the ingredient(s) is not commercially available in organic form.

Recordkeeping requirements

All organic operations are required to maintain records. Such records must:

The operation must make the records available for inspection and copying during normal business hours by authorized representatives of the USDA, the applicable State official, and the certifying agent.

Labeling standards

Labeling requirements are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product.

Products labeled "100% organic" must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients.

Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.

Products meeting the requirements for "100% organic" and "organic" may display the percentage of organic content on their principal display panel. The USDA organic seal and the seal or mark of the applicable certifying agents may appear on product packages and in advertisements.

Foods labeled "100% organic" and "organic" cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.

Processed products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.

Processed products labeled "made with organic ingredients" cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. The percentage of organic content and the certifying agent's seal or mark may be used on the principal display panel. However, the USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.

Processed products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term organic anywhere on the principal display panel. However, they may identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel. The handlers of such products do not have to be certified, but the individual ingredients identified as "organic" must have been produced by certified operations.

Other labeling provisions

Any product labeled as organic must identify each organically produced ingredient in the ingredient statement on the information panel.

The name and address of the certifying agent of the final product must be displayed on the information panel.

There are no restrictions in the Final Rule on use of other truthful labeling claims such as "no drugs or growth hormones used," "free range," or "sustainably harvested."

Penalties for misuse of labels

A civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program regulations.


The USDA accredits State, private and foreign organizations or persons to become "certifying agents." Certifying agents certify that production and handling practices meet the national standards.

Who needs to be certified? Operations or portions of operations that produce or handle agricultural products that are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as "100% organic," "organic," or "made with organic ingredients" or food group(s) must be certified.

Who does not need to be certified? Farms and handling operations that sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products do not need to be certified. Although exempt from certification, these producers and handlers must abide by the national standards, and may label their products as organic, but they must not sell their products to be used as organic ingredients in processed products, unless certified.

The following types of handling operations do not need to be certified:

How to become certified

An applicant submits specific information to an accredited certifying agent. Information includes:

Type of operation. History of substances applied to land for the previous three years. Organic products being grown, raised, or processed. Applicant's organic system plan, which includes practices and substances used in production or handling. The organic plan also must describe the monitoring practices to be performed to verify that the plan is effectively implemented, the operation's recordkeeping system, and the practices to prevent commingling of organic and non-organic products and measures taken to prevent contact of organic products with prohibited substances. Field maps, facility maps, product profiles, and product flow charts must also be submitted, as applicable.

A up-to-date list of accredited certifying agents is available at

Inspection and certification process

Certifying agents review applications for certification eligibility. A qualified inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant's operation. Inspections are scheduled when the inspector can observe the practices used to produce or handle organic products and talk to someone knowledgeable about the operation.

The certifying agent reviews the information submitted by the applicant and the inspector's report. If this information shows that the applicant is complying with the relevant standards and requirements, the certifying agent will grant certification and issue a certificate. Certification remains in effect until terminated, either voluntarily or through the enforcement process.

Annual inspections are conducted of each certified operation, and updates of information are provided annually to the certifying agent in advance of conducting these inspections. Certifying agents must be notified by a certified operator immediately of any changes affecting an operation's compliance with the regulations, such as application of a prohibited pesticide to a field.

Compliance review and enforcement measures

The NOP regulations permit USDA or the certifying agent to conduct unannounced inspections at any time to adequately enforce the regulations. OFPA requires that residue tests be performed to help in enforcement of the regulations. Certifying agents and USDA will conduct residue tests of organically produced products when there is reason to believe that they have been contaminated with prohibited substances. If any detectable residues are present, an investigation will be conducted to determine their source. If a residue over 5% of the EPA tolerance for a particular chemical is detected, the product cannot be sold as organic.

Program scope

Producers and handlers of any agricultural commodity or product, whether raw or processed, including any commodity or product derived from livestock, that is marketed in the US for human or livestock consumption may seek certification under the NOP as an organic producer or handler. (Please note, the term "consumption" is not limited to products that are used for human food.)

The NOP has determined that the following products, classes of products, and production systems are eligible to seek certification: Mushrooms; pet foods; aquatic animals; fabrics; cosmetics; body care products; over-the-counter medications; dietary supplements; fertilizers; soil amendments; and products from greenhouse, apiculture, and hydroponic systems. Because these and other products, classes of products, and production systems contain agricultural products, the producers and handlers of such products are eligible to seek certification under the NOP. While eligible to seek organic certification, these products must also be produced, handled and labeled in compliance with any other applicable Federal statutes and their implementing regulations.

The NOP recognizes that producers, handlers, and accredited certifying agents will have questions regarding application of the regulations under the NOP to specific products. NOSB recommendations related to mushrooms, apiculture, and greenhouse production are posted on the web for additional information and guidance ( Please note that these NOSB recommendations, while serving as guidance, are not regulations (standards) until formally implemented by NOP.

As needed, the NOP may engage in additional rulemaking to clarify the application of the existing regulations to specific products, classes of products, or production systems.

What about organic pet food?

The NOP has not engaged in rulemaking to establish specific organic pet food standards, and the NOSB has not drafted any recommendations concerning the topic. Because of this, certification of pet food is optional. However, if the word "organic" is used anywhere on a pet food label, the organic ingredient(s) must have been produced by certified operations, following all of the applicable requirements summarized above.

If your company wants to seek certification, then the product composition and labeling provisions described above for the various labeling categories of processed products apply to pet foods. For instance, if your product contains over 95% organic ingredients and approved nonagricultural substances on the National List, then you could receive certification and display the "USDA Organic" logo on your product's front panel.

What about minor ingredients and processing aids?

No substances have been specifically petitioned, reviewed, and approved as minor ingredients or processing aids for use in the manufacture of pet food. Because of this, certified pet food manufactures are currently restricted to substances on the National List.

The NOP regulation has a process in section 205.607 whereby anyone can petition to have any substance added to or removed from the National List. In order to petition to remove a substance, you need to request a copy of the petition procedures from the USDA at the following address:

Program Manager
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Room 4008-So. Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250

In order to submit a petition, you will need to submit information about the substance, and describe why it should be added to or removed from the National List. Include information on the effects caused by the substance (and/or its manufacturing process) on the environment, the agricultural system, and human or animal health.

The future for organic pet food?

With continued growth in the overall organic market, increased consumer awareness of environmental and health issues, and increasing supplies of organic ingredients, companies who choose to get certified and offer organic pet foods which fully comply with the NOP regulation will be well positioned for future growth.

Over the past 24 years, James A. (Jim) Riddle has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer. He was founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, (IOIA), and co-author of the IFOAM/IOIA International Organic Inspection Manual. He has helped train hundreds of organic inspectors throughout the world. Jim serves on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Task Force, and was instrumental in the passage of Minnesota's landmark organic certification cost-share program. Jim serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. Jim holds degrees in biology and political science from Grinnell College, and works part time as an organic policy specialist for Rodale's In 2003, Jim was appointed Endowed Chair of Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota.