Does USDA Certification Really Mean Anything?

What You Need To Know

USDA Certification

Have you heard that USDA certification really doesn’t mean anything? Heard it isn’t any big deal? That it’s just a big money hungry game with no real benefits? People who make these statements are simply and clearly uneducated on the subject and do not understand what USDA certification really is.

I’ve run a company that sells USDA certified organic products for five years now. We sell only USDA certified organic and wildcrafted essential oils sourced from all over the world. I have learned a lot about the USDA certification process. I’ll admit that years ago I did not understand what USDA certification was, and it really didn’t mean that much to me. When I learned what it really means, then I did care, and now I’m super passionate about it.

I will try to present the facts clearly to you so you can make your own informed decision about it. I admit I don’t know everything about it, but I do think I’m on the better informed side, having lived it for several years….especially as it applies to essential oils.

What does USDA certification really mean?
Let’s take a look at the different requirements between the two types of farming Certified Organic VS. Conventional (Sprayed)

Certified Organic Crops
  • The farm must comply with all requirements before organic crops can be produced (there are many, but they include a three year wait period if any toxic poisonous biocide has been used on the land before becoming organic, organic farms that are close to non organic farms must have a buffer zone to ensure no overspray from the conventional farm hits the organic crops, etc.)
  • Requires soil building, protecting, and enhancing practices
  • Requires compliance with sustainable farming practices
  • Only NON genetically modified (NON GMO) seeds may be used (GMO seeds are expressly prohibited in organic farming)
  • The crops may not be sprayed with toxic and poisonous pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, larvicides, etc.
  • Toxic synthetic fertilizers may not be used
  • Sewage sludge is expressly prohibited
  • Industrial solvents may not be used
  • Dyes are not permitted
  • Farmers must document their processes and keep records meticulously for inspection by a USDA inspector
  • Organic farmers must submit to an inspection every year to assure the farmer is complying with NAtional organic standards
  • Farmers are totally committed to unsprayed clean products
  • The crop must be fully traceable and fully documented from the seeds and the farm to the finished USDA certified organic product
  • Organic farming decreases the toxic load on our environment by not adding to the toxic chemicals being released on our Mother Earth
  • Organic farming decreases the toxic load on your body by not adding more toxic chemicals to our food sources and medicinal plants
  • Sellers of organic products must also be inspected every year to prove and verify they are really selling organic products by the USDA and its regulatory and certifying agencies
  • There are actually many more requirements not listed here, this just gives you an idea of what organic farmers and suppliers have to do to bring you organic products

Farmers who care enough to bring you certified organic products are highly committed to organic standards like a cleaner healthier crop, not polluting people, and using more natural farming methods (like manually removing - pulling - weeds). They also are committed to NOT using toxic synthetic pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc. Using toxic synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides is faster and less expensive for farmers, but these toxic chemicals pollute the plants, the environment, and our bodies.

Conventionally Grown (Sprayed) Crops

  • Does not require soil building practices
  • Does not require compliance with sustainable farming practices
  • Genetically modified seeds may be used (GMO)
  • Crops are sprayed with toxic and poisonous biocides which include: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, larvicides, etc.
  • Toxic synthetic fertilizers may be used
  • Sewage sludge allowed and commonly used
  • Industrial solvents may be used in processing the crops
  • Dyes on crops may be used
  • No documentation required
  • No inspections by anyone to regulate are required, allowing farmers to pretty much do whatever works for them
  • No traceability requirements
  • Sprayed crops increase the toxic load on the environment
  • Sprayed crops increase the toxic load on our Mother Earth
  • Sprayed crops increase the toxic load on your body

Conventional farming is one of the huge contributors to the toxicity and pollutants in our environment, responsible for dumping BILLIONS of pounds of these toxic and poisonous biocides on our soil every year in America alone!

The National Academy of Science reports 90% of the chemicals applied to foods in conventional farming have not been tested for long-term health effects before being deemed “safe”. Billions of pounds of these biocides are used annually in America, the average application equates to about 16 pounds of toxic chemicals pesticides per person every year! (Prevention, 2017)

Benefits of Organic Products

Are USDA certified organic products better than conventionally grown (sprayed) products?

Yes, absolutely! Here are three important ways organic products are better than conventional ones.

1. They do not contain the toxic synthetic chemicals and biocides used on conventional crops

“Eating organically grown foods is the only way to avoid the cocktail of chemical poisons present in commercially grown food” (Prevention, 2017). I would add that is the same for essential oils.

2. They are more nutritious

“Organically grown foods have more nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and micronutrients than conventionally grown foods because the soil is managed and nourished with sustainable practices by responsible standards. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine conducted a review of 41 published studies comparing the nutritional value of organically grown and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains and concluded that there are significantly more of several nutrients in organic foods crops. Further, the study verifies that five servings of organically grown vegetables (such as lettuce, spinach, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage) provide an adequate allowance of vitamin C, whereas the same number of servings of conventionally grown vegetables do not. On average, organically grown foods provide: 21.1% more iron (than their conventional counterparts); 27% more vitamin C; 29.3% more magnesium; 13.6% more phosphorus.” (Prevention, 2017)

When it comes to essential oils remember: a cleaner healthier plant produces a cleaner healthier essential oil. Although vitamins and minerals do not come over in the steam distillation process and are not in essential oils, there are phytochemicals and other healing elements that do come over in steam distillation that are in essential oils. There is also an energetic quality to both plants and essential oils, and organic essential oils have far better and more energy than conventional essential oils because of the way they were raised. If you’ve ever used good certified organic essential oils you know what I mean.

Oh, I’ve also got to mention there are studies that have tested to see if organic essential oils work better than conventional (sprayed) essential oils. One comes to mind… organic Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil was compared to a conventional (sprayed) Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil. Exact same oil from the same region, just one was organic and the other was conventional (sprayed). The results of the study show that the organic essential oil was more therapeutic than the conventionally produced oil. It worked better! Not surprising. I’ll throw in my two cents as a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist and a Registered Aromatherapist, high quality organic essential oils smell far better than any conventional (sprayed) essential oils I’ve ever smelled.

3. They are guaranteed NON GMO. That’s right, genetically modified organisms are not allowed in organic farming. So if you buy organic you are guaranteed the plants are NON GMO.

Aren’t ALL Essential Oils Organic?

Although the organic sector in the U.S. is growing, organic farming all over the world is still very small. For example, according to the USDA, organic sales account for over 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to recent industry statistics (Economic Research Service, 2017). This also includes dairy and meats (chicken, beef, etc.) so purely plant crops are even less than that 4%. That means the most part of the remaining 90ish% of U.S. food sales are conventionally grown (sprayed) crops. This is roughly the same all over the world. As you can see, MOST of the crops and products we get are conventional. If you want organic products you have to look for them and choose them. Are ALL essential oils organic? No! If you want organic essential oils you have to look for them.

Why are organic products more expensive?

There are three things that make organic farming more expensive:

  1. It costs more to produce organically. Organic farmers are not using the cheap toxic industrial chemicals and just spraying until the weeds and pests are gone as is done with conventional farming. They are out there using more natural methods of weed and pest control which often require more cost and more labor (for example clearing weeds manually by tractor or by hand).
  2. The second reason is the simple economics of supply and demand. Organic farming is only a small fraction of the farming in the USA and the world (less than 4%!). People who want and use organic products outweigh the supply. This raises prices. We see this when we source our essential oils. Often times the raw cost of the organic essential oil can be up to seven times more than that of the same conventional farmed (sprayed) oil.
  3. Finally, certified organic crops command a higher price in the market because they are a higher quality product, better, cleaner, more valuable, more nutritious crops that have not contributed to toxifying our environment. They are healthier for our bodies and people all over the world recognize the value of organic products and are willing to pay more for them.

Whenever I speak about organic farming someone always says, yes but I have a friend who claims he is raising organic crops on his land but he is not certified organic with the USDA, but his crops are organic, he swears! There are a couple things you should know in regards to this kind of claim:

No one is actually doing ALL of the things that are required to be certified organic (please reference the list above) but just hasn’t filed the paperwork. If a farmer is really doing everything required to be certified organic and checking off the list, then they would be crazy to not just file the paperwork and actually get their farm certified organic. It just does not happen. It's like a doctor doing all the training, education, residency, and internship and then they say, "I'm not gonna get my doctor certification after all....people will just trust that I'm qualified and that I know what I'm doing". There is not organic farming without certification (not only is it illegal to claim so because it is not regulated or verified by anyone, but because who knows what they’re really doing, nothing is documented or verified, no rules - they could be doing anything).

There might be a small backyard farm that is not spraying their crops, and complying with most organic regulations but does not get USDA certified organic, I know this happens. But if a farmer is large enough to be selling his crops and products to the public on a commercial scale then he is large enough to be held accountable to his consumers. If he is actually farming organically then he needs to file his paperwork with the USDA and prove it to both his consumers and the USDA. If that farm is not willing or not able to do so, that is great, but they cannot claim to have organic products because there is some reason why they do not and cannot get certified as organic (and it has nothing to do with money….read on).

Who can get USDA certified? How much does it cost?

Any farmer or seller who is dedicated to clean sustainable farming can get certified organic, but you have to REALLY have organic products, be willing to be inspected every year (they go through all your facility, processes, products, materials used, and all your paperwork from the time you receive organic material until it leaves your facility maintaining all organic requirements), and be willing to complying with all the National organic standards and requirements.

Surprisingly it is not that expensive to get certified organic. Depending on the size of the operation a couple thousand dollars is all. There are smaller yearly fees to stay certified, but anyone who is committed to organic standards can recoup the cost in the added value to their product.

Some people perpetuate the myth that getting certified organic is astronomically expensive and they can’t afford it. This is simply false. Any farm growing crop - domestic or international - on a commercial scale to sell it, they can afford to get USDA certified. People committed to organic standards and are willing and happy to prove it to their consumers. I know I got my small company certified organic before I was even making any money because I wanted my consumers to know for sure they are getting the good organic stuff! If it’s important to you, it is extremely possible.

Can you get certified organic products from outside the USA?

Absolutely! Just as one example...Have you ever looked at your organic olive oil from Costco? USDA certified organic olive oil from Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, Spain, and Greece. Oh and organic coconut oil from the Philippines….You’re already getting organic products from outside the USA and you didn’t even know it!

Lots of organic products in the USA come from organic producers all over the world. I source most of my essential oils from outside the USA (because essential oils are better coming from their indigenous countries).

There are organic farmers and organic regulatory agencies all over the world - like the USDA here in the USA - that regulate and certify organic farming. The USDA is very stringent in their standards and accepts some international certifications and rejects others. For example, if an organic farmer say, in Africa is complying with organic practices that are at least as stringent as the USDA’s standards then the USDA will verify their certification and accept them as an approved organic supplier. We here in the USA can then put the USDA seal on that organic product. It’s a little more complex than that, but basically, you get the picture.

For example, Undisputedly the best true Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in the world comes from France. So I get our certified organic Lavender from France from amazing French farmers who are out there producing it with skill, love, passion, integrity, and commitment to organic standards and are willing and able to prove it through organic certification.

After doing this for so many years, you inevitably run across international and national sellers who claim to have organic product, but cannot produce organic certification and ask you to just “trust” them. Keep in mind, it is far easier, far less work, and less expensive to grow crops conventionally (sprayed). The bulk (over 90%) of farming all over the world is conventional (sprayed). Organic is really the exception. Believe me, there are more of these fraudulent suppliers than actual organic suppliers out there! That is why it is so important to get certified organic products and make sure they have the USDA organic seal right on them, It’s the only way to be sure you’re actually getting organic products. Certified organic products have been verified through organic certification both at their regional level and through the USDA.

Some of the foreign organic certifying agencies like the Europe certifying agency is stricter than the USDA. In Europe, even their conventional (sprayed) farming is stricter than conventional farming in the USA. Europe has banned many toxic, synthetic chemicals that are still allowed here in the USA in conventional (sprayed) farming.

Is it important that essential oils are USDA certified organic?

It’s important to eat organic foods wherever possible because they have been proven to be healthier for you. Believe it or not, it is even more important to use certified organic essential oils. The reason is the phytochemicals in essential oils are 70 to 100 times more concentrated than the phytochemicals in the plant the oil came from. The distillation process really concentrates chemicals including the beneficial phytochemicals and toxic chemicals sprayed on the plant. I always tell people a cleaner healthier plant produces a cleaner healthier essential oil. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to using natural medicines from plants you want to be getting those natural medicines from the cleanest certified organic source possible. When conventionally grown (sprayed) crops are distilled the toxic pesticides do come through the distillation process and end up in your essential oil.

"There are over 400 chemical biocides (pesticides or herbicides) that might be used on aromatic plants, and many of these do carry over during the steam distillation process. The products of cold pressed citrus oils are even more likely to retain any biocides.” ~Robert Tisserand

You do not want to risk there being any concentrated pesticides or synthetic toxins in your concentrated essential oils! You are putting those in and on your body and on your children. Now you know how to be absolutely sure you have the cleanest (unsprayed) essential oils, get organic ones!

"One thing that is not arguable is that you should use organically grown herbs
whenever possible, even though the cost may be a bit more. After all, you are using
your herbal remedies for health and healing; it’s best not to have them laced
with pesticides and herbicides.
” Rosemary Gladstar, Master Herbalist


“Organic oils are obviously the best because of the complete absence
of unwanted chemicals such as pesticides or artificial fertilizers.”
Shirley Price, English Aromatherapist

Many aromatic plants are grown with pesticides. Pesticides can cause
a reaction that has nothing to do with the essential oil.
So always use organic oils.
” Jane Buckle, PhD, RN, Aromatherapist

Why do some people and some companies NOT support USDA certification and try to make it look bad or unreliable?

The only people I have ever seen criticize organic products, make them look bad, say it’s just a money game, or try to convince people the USDA organic seal doesn’t mean anything (or to be “leery” of it) is usually because they are trying to sell you a conventionally grown (sprayed) product and they want you to think it’s as good as or better than an organic version. Simply put it’s usually people who don’t have organic products who try to make them look bad. Everyone else (farmers, sellers, producers, consumers) loves organic products for their awesome health benefits for people and the environment.

“Keep our children and future safe: Putting our money where our mouths are is a powerful position to take in the $1 trillion food industry market in America. Spending dollars in the organic sector is a direct vote for a sustainable future for the many generations to come” (Prevention, 2017).

The “Beyond Organic” Group (name given by the Certifying Agencies)

There are companies who want you to think their conventionally grown (sprayed) products (including essential oils) are better than organically grown products. So instead of proving to their consumers that they comply with all the requirements of organic farming and that their products really are UNsprayed (by getting USDA certified), they just tell their customers that their products are “beyond organic” or “better than organic”. Let’s look at this.

You should be aware that these types of claims are fraudulent and illegal. I’m not trying to bash or put anyone down here, but you as a consumer should know these facts.

The USDA pretty much owns the word organic. You cannot use it unless you are certified with them. I’ll be honest, when I first heard of this I thought it was absolutely evil. But when I learned of the reasons and causes behind this move, it makes a lot of sense. Here’s why:

n 2002, the USDA saw a huge problem. There were so many companies selling products labeled organic to sell at a premium price, but they were really selling conventionally grown (sprayed) products. How could any average consumer know the difference? Consumers were being deceived into buying lower quality products but thinking they were getting organic! This is when the USDA stepped in. Somehow organic products had to be regulated and consumers had to have a way to identify truly organic products from conventionally grown (sprayed) products. Hence the USDA certified organic seal was born. We’ve all seen it:

Today organic trade in the USA is highly regulated by the USDA. Companies selling organic products have to certify with them and actually prove that they really have organic products, or they can’t even use the word organic associated with their products. The organic department of the USDA who regulates this is comprised of organic farmers, and organic producers who are out there working very hard to maintain the integrity of the USDA seal and what it means to consumers. They are very strict, but to protect consumers they should be.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a perfect institution. I realize it’s government and so it has its faults and shortcomings. But after getting USDA certified organic, I will say that the organic department of the USDA does a very good job at regulating organic trade. The National Organic Program is no joke, and they work very hard to maintain the integrity of the USDA seal.

USDA regulation also makes it illegal to make claims like:
  • "Better than organic"
  • "Beyond organic"
  • "As good as organic"
  • "A step above organic"
  • or anything similar
  • or even "Organic" (if the company is not certified - proving it - through the USDA)

If you have seen companies make these claims, be aware that they are fraudulent and illegal because these marketing claims are misleading and they confuse consumers and make consumers believe they are getting a better quality product than they actually are.

There is nothing better or cleaner than a USDA certified organic product. (well okay, there are Wildcrafted products, but don’t even get me started on Wildcrafted! Just know that if a product is really wildcrafted it will say so right on the label, and there are lots of products that cannot be wildcrafted.)

Back to organic...There is nothing better or cleaner than a USDA certified organic product. If there is a farmer out there raising very clean crop then he would have no problem getting it USDA certified. If companies really have clean organic products then they need to prove it, by getting the USDA seal on their products.

It is THE way companies can prove and verify their quality to consumers.

And it is THE way consumers can know which are the really high quality clean products.

Before claiming that you’re “better” or “beyond organic”, first show consumers that you can even qualify to be certified organic. If you don’t even have organic products, then you’re certainly not “better than” or “beyond organic”. If your products can’t even qualify to be certified organic...then you cannot make these types of deceptive claims. As a consumer, don’t fall for these tricky, deceptive, and illegal marketing claims.

As far as farming and growing crops on this planet goes...there is certified organic farming or there is conventional (sprayed) farming. It is one of these two. If a product is not certified organic then it is conventional (sprayed). There really are not very many exceptions to this rule, especially on the large scale required to commercially produce product. With essential oils this is even truer, if you’ve ever distilled an essential oil, which I have, you will have some appreciation for the huge amounts of raw plant material it takes to produce an essential oil. Essential oils require tons of plant material to produce on a scale large enough to sell it.

Understand….companies don’t have to get USDA certified….but if they don’t then they cannot claim their products are organic, “Better than organic”, “Beyond organic”, or “As good as organic”. They have to represent their products for what they are (conventional) (sprayed). And consumers like you and me are becoming more aware of the difference.

How Do You Know If A Product Is really Organic?

This is an easy question! If after understanding the USDA certification you want to buy organic products it’s super easy to tell them from the conventionally (sprayed) products. You want to look for the USDA certified organic seal right on the label of the product. If it is there you will know for sure that the product is an organically produced one, and you support organic farming and support reducing the environmental toxins when you choose organic! So the next time you’re at Costco (and your other grocery stores) look for the USDA certified organic products and the USDA seal for cleaner healthier produce.

The exact same thing applies to essential oils. If you want to be sure you’re getting organically produced essential oils then look for the USDA organic seal right on the label of every bottle of essential oil you buy. If the USDA seal is not right on there on the label, then you have a conventionally (sprayed) produced essential oil in that bottle. For cleaner healthier essential oils look for the USDA seal! It’s not only about not being sprayed, organic essential oils also have better energetic properties, and come from cleaner, healthier plants.

I bet some of you essential oil users will be surprised….Go get your bottle of essential oil and look on the label. Is the USDA seal there? If so I applaud you for supporting organic! If not, you should really try certified organic essential oils. If you get high quality ones, you will be surprised how much better they are than conventionally grown (sprayed) oils.

We All Want An Industry Standard For Essential Oils

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an industry standard for essential oils - not some self-certification some company makes up and gives itself - but a real standard of quality all across the board and all across the country and even all across the world, that is regulated by a neutral third party? A way you could really tell which essential oils are better, higher quality and cleaner?

Well, ta-da! There is! The industry standard for higher quality essential oils is USDA certified organic. It is recognized all over the world and is regulated by a neutral third party (the USDA and their regulatory agencies), inspected every 12 months to make sure both the farmer and the seller are maintaining integrity and complying with National organic standards and practices. It is the highest sign of quality and cleanliness in an essential oil.

Another thing to be aware of when buying organic essential oils:

Most (around 95%) of companies out there that carry USDA certified organic essential oils only carry a handful of organic oils (seriously, only like 5 to 10), and then the bulk of their inventory is actually conventionally grown (sprayed) oils. Just be aware of this so that if you’re looking for USDA certified organic essential oils you don’t accidentally get conventional ones from companies like this. I will also say there are different grades of organic essential oils, when using them therapeutically you want the highest quality organic oils you can get, even if they cost a little more. They smell better (closer to the plant) and work better too.

After reading about USDA certification, you can see why I do what I do -- I started my company because I am so committed and convinced of the superiority and cleanliness of organic essential oils. I wanted to create a source for those who want the high-end certified organic oils. That is why we carry ONLY very high-quality USDA certified organic and wildcrafted essential oils. We do not carry any conventionally grown (sprayed) essential oils in the company I founded called Purify Skin Therapy.

In Conclusion

If you can understand what USDA certification really means it would be odd if you didn’t support the hardworking and dedicated farmers who go to all this trouble to bring us the cleanest healthiest products in an environmentally friendly sustainable way, and doing so much good for our planet, but we all have that freedom of choice. I encourage you to look closely at those people who disparage USDA certification. What are their motives for telling you that USDA certification doesn't mean anything? Are they trying to sell you something that is not USDA certified organic, but trying to convince you that it is the highest quality product? Well, now you know better.

I encourage you to think for yourself. If this topic gets you emotional, I encourage you to do your own research. Heaven knows there’s a lot out there! I encourage you to choose USDA certified organic products. When you choose USDA certified organic products you support all of the following:

  • Organic farmers
  • Sustainability and enhanced soil practices
  • Decrease the toxic load on our environment
  • Decrease the toxic load on your body
  • Being better stewards of this planet
  • A cleaner, healthier world

Choose cleaner, healthier products and support those farmers and companies who are doing it right.

Holly Draper
Certified Clinical Aromatherapist
Registered Aromatherapist
Founder and Formulator of Purify Skin Therapy
120 USDA certified organic and wildcrafted essential oils

Copyright © 2017 Holly Draper. All Rights Reserved.


Economic Research Service, (2017). Organic Market Overview. Retrieved from:, (2017). Top 10 Reasons To Go Organic: Choosing Fresh Foods Can Help You Feel Better and Preserve the Environment. Retrieved from:

USDA, (2017). Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. retrieved from: