Retailer Organic Certification: Coming Soon to a Store Near You?

By Cissy Bowman

As we await the implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), the question in the minds of most of this magazine's readers may be: "How will this affect my store?" While several retail establishments have gone on record opposing mandatory retail certification, others have remained silent. Scattered throughout the U.S. are several that have attained certification -- some because of existing state requirements.

Of those who sent the 40,000 public comments that USDA received after publication of the re-written Proposed Rule, the vast majority wished to see retailers certified. What are the pros and cons of meeting these wishes?

The OFPA requires certification for retailers that "process" food. The definition of "process" is a broad one, including "cooking, baking, heating, drying, mixing, grinding, churning, separating, extracting, cutting, fermenting, eviscerating, preserving, dehydrating, freezing, or otherwise manufacturing, and includes the packaging, canning, jarring, or otherwise enclosing food in a container." Many, if not most, of today's food stores do one or more of the above -- in their delis, produce departments, bakeries, and kitchens.

The Proposed Rule did not indicate that USDA will follow OFPA in making retail certification mandatory at this time, but USDA does consider certification an additional requirement that states may practice. Texas and California are already enforcing compliance with their retail standards. Others states are thinking about creating similar programs. If such regulations are in the future, how will they impact your establishment?

There are those -- growers, handlers, processors -- who consider certification to be burdensome, expensive, and unnecessary. In practice, where retail certification is commonly done, stores have found that it can also be an opportunity. Grocers are not strangers to regulation such as Weights and Measures, the Board of Health, and meat inspectors.

Just as compliance with these regulations provides the consumer with quality assurance, so does organic regulation. Retail standards are designed to protect consumers from falsely-labeled "organic" foods, contamination with prohibited materials, and commingling with non-organic products.

Many stores that have been through the process have found that becoming certified helped them to educate their staff as well consumers about what organic food is and why it is different. Being certified is a marketing tool -- a symbol that the consumer can trust the store to maintain the organic integrity of their products. A hoop to jump through, yes, but it is also an asset.

Although only a few states have organic retail standards, private certifiers can apply their handler standards to retail stores and should be willing to offer certification. Most state programs are operated through the individual state's Department of Agriculture. Costs vary (from a few hundred dollars to thousands) from certifier to certifier, so shopping around is definitely in order.

Optimistically, in the near future, the National Organic Standards Board (as it works on other missing parts of the Final Rule, such as standards for maple syrup, honey, hydroponics, aquaculture, etc.) will draft and recommend retail standards to USDA. Because of the size and complexity of groceries, developing retail processing standards will be no small task.

The retailer position on the Board is competently filled by Mark King of Indianapolis' Georgetown Market, the only certified store in Indiana at this time. Having been through the process, Mark has an excellent understanding of what it entails and has found both certification as well as the Good Organic Retail Practices ("GORP") to be helpful and educational for Georgetown Market.

We will keep you posted on the development of retail standards and regulations, but it's never too late to start thinking about what you as retailers see as needing to be addressed. There has been little input from this segment of the business at NOSB meetings. The federal and state organic standards that will be created need your thoughts and ideas! A list of certification agencies can be found at:

http://www.iquest.net/ofma/certy2k.htm.

The next National Organic Standards Board meeting is scheduled to be held in the Washington DC area in mid-November. For more information on the National Organic Program, visit:

http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop

See other articles from this issue: #091 November - December - 2000