The USDA organic regulationsstate that the term “organic” can only be used on the label of a product that is produced or handled by a certified operation (again, the usual exceptions apply). Getting this organic certification, though, can be a tedious, costly, and burdensome endeavor and many food companies simply can’t make the “jump” to organic without a large investment of equipment, time, and money. Because of this, our clients often ask whether there is a way to label a product as “organic” without going through the “hassle” of certification? In a word: Yes.
Co-packing (also sometimes known as “private labeling”) is a common practice in the food industry. A co-packer produces and packages food for its clients—to their specifications and with their name on the label. Often, a label does not even indicate that the product was produced by a co-packer, and the average consumer wouldn’t necessarily know (or care). When a food product label identifies the entity responsible for the product on the information panel with a phrase such as “manufactured for…” or “distributed by…,” this signals a co-packaging situation.
The organic regulations permit co-packing, provided that the manufacturer follows the organic regulations. So, how does it work?
Traditionally, a food producer will obtain organic certification in its own name, create its own formulations, source the necessary raw materials, produce the product, and label it with its name and its certifier’s name. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. It involves paperwork, fees, and, often, more paperwork. Importantly, the organic regulations require that the organic certification agency be identified along with the handler on the information panel of a retail product. This is why the phrase “certified organic by…” will always be found on the retail label of an organic product. In this “traditional” situation, the food producer itself is the certified operation.
However, even if a food producer is not certified organic, it can contract with a certified organic co-packer to produce organic goods for them. In this situation, the uncertified food producer relies on the co-packer’s organic certification. The co-packer is now the entity responsible to their certifier for the formulation, raw material sourcing, processing, and labeling of the product. That’s not to say that the uncertified food producer can’t or won’t dictate details relating to the production of the product to the co-packer (that’s what a contract is for!), but the co-packer is the certified operation and has all of the obligations regarding certification.
The National Organic Program accepts this co-packing arrangement, and simply expects that the organic certification agency named on the label (again, easily identifiable to the consumer with the “certified organic by…” phrase) be responsible for the compliance of the organic product. So even though the co-packer’s name is not on the label, that co-packer will include the private-labeled product in their organic system plan, and will be held responsible for the product’s compliance by their organic certification agency.
In short, if organic certification is not feasible for a food producer—because of operational obstacles, the burden of certification, or any other reason—it is still possible to get an organic product into the marketplace, even with the uncertified food producer’s brand or name. Navigating this arrangement can be tricky, but when done correctly, co-packing can be a great (and, often, less expensive) way to enter the organic market and expand a food producer’s overall product offering.