What is an Organic Inspector?

By Erin M. Crandell

What organic certification means and what it involves can be confusing. In an effort to clarify the process of organic certification, production, and labeling, we interviewed an independent organic processing inspector, Nancy Ludwig, MS, RD, LN. Not only was she an informative and helpful source who walked us through the system of organic processing, but she also recounted her personal experiences within the field and thoughts about food processing in general.

So, what is an organic inspector? Basically, an inspector is a trained professional who examines the process of organic handling by a business seeking organic certification. This includes inspecting buildings and equipment, contamination risks, pest management, and sales and production records. An organic inspector can be a farm organic inspector or a process organic inspector, or both.

While we will concentrate on process inspection primarily for this article, both types of inspectors follow the same guidelines and monitor the same fundamental processes. Although samples may be collected and analyzed during an inspection, Nancy emphasized that it is the process itself, and not the products resulting from it, that is the focus of the inspection. Both farm and process inspectors intend to determine if the business or organization’s organic process follows an organic plan that will yield organic products.

Nancy functions solely as a process organic inspector because of her ample experience in food processing and a lack of familiarity with farm practices. She became interested in organic inspection when she found herself becoming disenchanted with the work she had been doing, product development for various companies. For example, one corporation hired her to help them develop “fresh” packaged salads with a longer shelf life. Nancy began to feel more and more removed and wanted to become closer to the earth. It was these factors, as well as her intense interest in food and various food processing operations, that drew her to organic inspection. Nancy also has her Masters Degree in Food Science and Technology and is a registered dietitian, which made it even easier for her to simply jump right into the field. While these are not requirements for becoming an inspector, her knowledge in these related areas was helpful in getting started.

To become an inspector, Nancy went through a training program with the Independent Organic Inspection Association (IOIA), a non-profit that coordinates farm and processing inspector training. According to the USDA, there are nearly 50 private and state organic certification programs in the United States. Nancy chose IOIA because she said it was the only organization created to train independent inspectors. The program includes coursework and an apprenticeship program. The time involved in training varies greatly from person to person, with the apprenticeship component lasting up to two years.

As an independent contractor, Nancy works with a certifying agency that is accredited by the USDA and actually makes the decision for certification based on the information its inspectors collect. The relationship between the inspector and certifier works like this—an inspector like Nancy gives her name to one or more certifying agencies she chooses to work with. Then, work organized by the certifying agency is funneled through to the inspector on a contractual basis.

We asked Nancy what is typically involved in the inspection process. First, there is a lot of travel with this type of work. For Nancy, who works in Oregon, there is some local work, but much of it requires traveling long distances. Surprisingly, a lot of time is spent with travel preparations. She never before realized how important a comfortable seat in a car is on very long drives until she started to work as an inspector.

Before the actual inspection begins, the inspector is given a packet of information that includes a copy of the last inspection, along with the organic handling plan of the operation requesting certification. The organic handling plan is a detailed compilation of procedures and processes that the organization maintains for the organic aspect of their business. All of this material is reviewed before the inspector’s visit to the operation. Once on-site, the inspector becomes the eyes and ears for the certifying agent and investigates the process of organic production to see if it is in accordance with the organic handling plan of the operation. This is in addition to ensuring that the regulations set forth by the government for organic processing are met. The inspector writes a report and presents it the certifying agency, which analyzes the information and makes a decision about granting certification based on its results.

Now, that we have taken a look at the certification process, what do these results mean to the consumer? What does it mean when we see these products in the store? Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 to address the wide variation in organic processing and production, along with the inconsistency and confusion surrounding the labeling that was taking place. This act was created to ensure consumers that products labeled ‘organic’ meet consistent standards. As stated by the USDA, the OFPA and The National Organic Program (which is a marketing branch of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service), agricultural products labeled as ‘organic’ are required to have originated from farms or handling operations certified by a state or private agency that has been accredited by the USDA.

On October 21, 2002, USDA organic label regulations were implemented so that consumers can know for sure that products labeled ‘organic’ meet all the requirements and regulations of organic production and handling, as required by law. Use of the labels is voluntary; however, if a product is labeled as ‘organic’ and is not, the operating or processing company can be fined up to $10,000. For multiple ingredient products with 100% organic ingredients, the company may display the USDA Organic label and a ‘100% Organic’ claim on the outside/front of the package. If a product is 95-100% organic, the USDA label may be used, and ‘Organic’ may be displayed on the front of the package. For a product with at least 70% organic ingredients, the company may not use the USDA organic label, but it may list the ingredients that are organic on the front of the package. A product with fewer than 70% is allowed only to advertise the organic ingredients in the ingredient list on the side of the package.

It should be noted that operations grossing less than $5,000 annually from organic sales are exempt from the certification process. However, the operations still must comply with handling, production, and labeling requirements.

The purpose of the government taking control of regulations and labeling is to ensure consistent organic claims for the consumer. Prior to the OFPA of 1990, it was easy to become confused when shopping for organic items. In fact, it still can be confusing, even with the new guidelines in effect. With more consistent practices and regulations, and by talking to people involved like Nancy Ludwig, the process of organic handling, processing, and labeling should become a little easier for the consumer to understand.


  • Nancy Ludwig, MS, RD, LD, Food Scientist/Dietitian/Independent Organic Food Processing Inspector, 5/02.
  • USDA-National Organic Program - www.ams.usda.gov/nop, 5/02.
  • IOIA-Independent Organic Inspectors Association - www.ioia.net, 5/02.
Erin M. Crandell wrote this piece while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group. Erin is presently a University of Michigan MPH and RD Candidate.