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Importing Organic Food Into The US: The Definitive Guide

Fresh produce distributed on a table
There are a variety of CBP and USDA regulations involved in importing organic food to the U.S. Learn more about what you need to know to complete your organic imports successfully.
By
Jacob Lee
March 15, 2022
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Last Modified: March 15, 2022

Importing organic food into the US has become popular due to many Americans opting to consume more organic food for their various health benefits. To keep up with demand, grocery stores require a reliable supply of food on their shelves at all times. Despite the popularity of organic food, importing it into the US is an extremely complex task to complete. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), importing organic food into the U.S. can be done under one of two circumstances. Either the organic food is imported from a USDA certified farm/business or from one of these countries the U.S. has organic trade arrangements:

  • Canada
  • EU
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Switzerland

In this article, we will provide you with everything that you need to know about successfully importing organic food into the U.S.

How to Import Organic Food

Importing organic food to the U.S. - lines of fresh produce on grocery store shelves

When it comes to bringing organic products into the country, you will have to abide by USDA organic agricultural product regulations. If you’re bringing organic products into the country for commercial purposes, you will also need to adhere to regulations outlined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and obtain a customs bond.

USDA Regulations

The USDA has specific regulations regarding the importation of organic products into the U.S. food market. Any organic products that are brought into the U.S. must adhere to USDA organic regulations or an authorized international standard. 

Under the USDA organic regulations, organic products need to be imported from farms and businesses that have a USDA organic certification. For a farm or business to obtain the USDA organic certification, they must first complete these five steps:

  1. Farm/business adopts USDA organic practices, selects USDA-accredited certifying agents and sends their application and relevant fees to their certifying agent.
  2. A certifying agent will review the application to determine if the practices of the farm/business are in line with USDA organic regulations.
  3. An inspector will go to the site of the farm/business and inspect the operation. 
  4. Certifying agent reviews the applications and the report given by the inspector and concludes whether or not the farm/business complies with the USDA’s organic food regulations.
  5. If the applicant passes the certifying agent issues the organic certificate.

The USDA guidelines that farms/businesses must abide by address various factors involved in agriculture. According to the USDA’s agricultural marketing service, these factors are:

  • Soil quality
  • Animal raising practices
  • Pest control
  • Weed control
  • Use of additives

The second option you can use to import organic food products into the country is the authorized international standard. Under the international standard, the U.S. permits importers to import shipments of organic food products from many different countries. 

Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland and all nations within the EU have arrangements with the U.S. that allow them to sell organic food products.  

In addition to having to import from one of these two types of countries, the U.S. has general import requirements that must also be followed. These include:

  • Proper Labeling Usage: Any organic food products that enter the U.S. needs to have the proper labeling attached. This includes the correct organic labeling as well as general labeling. 
  • Proper HTS Code Usage: Products will need to have their corresponding HTS code attached to them. The HTS code for your organic product will ensure the correct tariff rate is applied.
  • Grading: Grading is a process used by USDA to determine if imported agricultural commodities meet their standards. The standards vary across different types of foods.  
  • Health Inspection: The health inspection determines if the imported products are safe from pests and diseases. An import of animal products will need a sanitary certificate and plants must have a phytosanitary certificate. Other relevant permits will also be needed.
  • Adherence to Meat, Poultry and Processed Egg Product Standards Equivalent To the U.S.: The USDA will only allow imported agricultural products from countries that have standards Equivalent to the U.S. 

If you want to know more about how FDA clearance can impact HTS codes, our article about HTS codes with FDA flags will be able to help you out.

CBP Regulations 

There are a few regulations that CBP upholds that you will need to abide by when importing organic food to the US Imports of commercial goods that have a value of $2,500 or more will require a customs bond to import into the country. 

Additionally, customs duties and tariffs will be required as well. CBP has agricultural specialists that will need to inspect your import of organic agricultural foods when they come into the country. 

Our article discussing taxes on imported goods will give you more information about importation fees.

Need Help Importing Organic Food to the U.S.

Schedule a consulting session with one of our Licensed Customs Brokers and get the importing help you need.

How Much of the U.S.’s Imported Food Is Organic?

According to the latest data from 2017, about 16 percent of U.S. food imports were organic. Since then, there have been more imports of organic products in the U.S. than ever before from over 111 different nations.      

Where To Import Organic Food From

The U.S. imports organic food from about 111 different countries. All of these options make choosing a particular country pretty stressful. To narrow your search down, start with the top five countries that import organic agricultural products to the U.S. in the table below.

Top Exporters of Organic Food Into the U.S. 

Organic Trading PartnerImport In U.S. DollarsPercentage of Agricultural Imports
Mexico$17 Billion38.46%
Canada$5.2 Billion11.76%
Colombia$2.7 Billion6.11%
Peru$2.3 Billion5.20%
Guatemala$2 Billion4.52%

Mexican Organic Imports

Cartons of organic eggs

Mexico is by far the leading provider of organic products to the U.S. for a few reasons. For one, there are about 2,500 USDA-certified organic agricultural operations that are active in Mexico. 

Just within one country, there are multiple operations that importers can choose as their supplier for food. The USDA also has accredited certifiers that can inspect other farms and businesses that want to be USDA certified.


Canadian Organic Imports

As previously mentioned, Canada and the U.S. have an organic trade arrangement with each other. The arrangement that Canada and the U.S. have is under what’s called the National Organic Program or NOP. 

The NOP has established rules and regulations for organic agricultural goods that are imported into the country. Under the NOP, Canadian organic food products that are certified by the Canada Organic Regime (COR) will be considered organic and do not need USDA certification to be imported. 

While not as much as Mexico, Canada has 7,300 organic operations which give importers a variety of different suppliers to choose from. 

Other Countries To Import From

While Mexico and Canada take the lead as top suppliers of organic agricultural products for the U.S., there are plenty of other countries that you can import organic agricultural products from. 

Colombia, Peru and Guatemala have organic agricultural operations that are USDA-organic certified while Canada and the U.S. have an organic trade arrangement with one another. 

You can also import agricultural products from the countries that, like Canada, have organic trade arrangements between the U.S. and themselves. These countries are the Republic of Korea, Japan, Switzerland and the European Union (EU).

Any of these options will be acceptable and provide you with a quality shipment when importing organic food into the US.

Need Help Importing Organic Food to the U.S.

Schedule a consulting session with one of our Licensed Customs Brokers and get the importing help you need.

What Makes Food Organic?

A tractor plowing fields

To ensure that imported agricultural products have the USDA-organic certification, it’s important to understand how the USDA defines agricultural products as organic. There are three types of agricultural products standardized by the USDA: 

  • Crops
  • Meat
  • Multi-ingredient foods

Naturally, each of these three types of products are held to different organic standards by the USDA. 

USDA Organic Crop Standards

For USDA to consider crops to be organic, they have to be grown under strict standards and practices. For example, produce has to be grown in soil that has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years before being harvested. 

USDA considers most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to be prohibited substances. Crop growth must also be managed using the following methods:

  • Tillage
  • Cultivation
  • Crop rotations
  • Cover crops

These management techniques have to be supplemented using crop and animal waste as well as with synthetic materials allowed by the USDA. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 7, 205.600 provides details about substances that can and can’t be used.  

Pests, weeds and diseases that could pose a threat to the health of crops must be dealt with using the following techniques:

  • Physical removal
  • Mechanical removal
  • Biological methods
  • Botanical methods
  • Approved synthetic substances

Organic seeds and other organic materials must be used when the crops are planted. Lastly, genetic engineering, ionizing, radiation and sewage sludge cannot be used or in the soil when planting organic crops. 

USDA Organic Meat Standards

As with crops, USDA standards for organic meat are fairly strict. Many of the organic meat standards that the USDA enforces are quality living standards and proper livestock care. This includes: 

  • Preventive healthcare to keep animals healthy
  • Constant year-round access to outdoors
  • Limited confinement due to health or environmental conditions that have been documented
  • Animals cannot be given hormones that increase their growth or antibiotics under any circumstance
  • Dairy animals should be taken care of organically for 12 months for their milk and other dairy products to be considered organic

In addition to these living standards, livestock has to be fed with agricultural feed that is also 100 percent organic and allowed to forage for food.    

USDA Standards for Organic Multi-Ingredient Foods

As with organic produce and meat products, organic multi-ingredient foods have some specific rules applied to them. These rules apply to the ingredients of the foods and how the foods are packed.

Multi-ingredient foods must not have artificial:

  • Preservatives
  • Colors
  • Flavors

While these prohibitions are strictly enforced there are some exceptions allowed by USDA. Some of these exceptions are non-agricultural ingredients such as: 

  • Enzymes
  • Pectin
  • Baking Soda 

It’s imperative that if you’re importing multi-ingredient products, they have the proper labels applied to them.


What Are The Four USDA Organic Labels and What Do They Mean?

Tomatoes labeled organic

USDA uses four different types of labels for organic products, each of which has slightly different meanings. These four organic labels are:

  1. 100 percent organic
  2. Organic
  3. Made with organic ingredients
  4. Made with specific organic ingredients

While all organic products should have an organic label, not all of them will have the USDA Organic seal.

As the name implies, the 100 percent organic seal is used for agricultural products that contain 100 percent organic ingredients. Imports of this variety should have the USDA label and the name of the certifying agent. 

The organic label is used for agricultural products that are made mostly of organic ingredients. Non-organic ingredients can be used in this product as long as they’re non-organic ingredients allowed in the National List

While non-organic ingredients can have an organic label, only about five percent of all the ingredients for the product as a whole can be non-organic. Imports of these organic products must also have the name of the certifying agent and the USDA Organic Seal.

The “made with” organic ingredients label is for products that are made with no less than 70 percent of organic products. “Made with” specific organic ingredients label is for products that have less than 70 percent of organic ingredients within it. 

The USDA Organic Seal is not permitted on these two types of organic foods. Products that have the “made with” organic ingredients label cannot be represented as organic by the farm or business that produced them.

However, at least three ingredients or categories of ingredients in these types of products can be called organic. Products that have been made with organic ingredients labels can list the organic ingredients within the product on the ingredient label.

If you need to import products that have no organic ingredients then consult our article about everything you need to know to import fruits and vegetables.

Need Help Importing Organic Food to the U.S.

Schedule a consulting session with one of our Licensed Customs Brokers and get the importing help you need.

Get Help Importing Organic Food to the US

Importing organic food into the U.S. is a fairly challenging task for anyone to undertake. Luckily, a reliable customs broker can help you with the process. At USA Customs Clearance, we have many reliable customs brokers that can help you with your import needs. 

Any information regarding duties, tariffs and proper paperwork can all be taken care of by one of our experienced customs brokers. If you don’t know where to begin the importing process you can schedule a consulting session to figure out what your first step should be.  

Your broker at USA Customs Clearance will make sure that the only thing you will have to worry about as an importer is finding a supplier and ordering your shipment. Schedule your import and customs consulting services today.

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