Retail delis that so much as juice an organic carrot or open a can of organic beans will be affected by the NOP's labeling law that takes effect Oct. 21. Although most prepared foods operations are excluded from retail organic certification requirements for handling, preparing and labeling "organic" products, many delis have done surprisingly little to educate and prepare themselves for their responsibilities and opportunities in complying with the new rule.
Organic retail certification is not required of delis that produce foods exclusively for their own store. But even excluded delis will be required to obey the new organic labeling law, which, among other things, describes four labeling categories that may be used to describe products based on the percentage of organic ingredients (by weight or volume). (Visit www.ams.usda.gov/nop/facts/labeling.htm.)
Delis that use the term organic to name or otherwise market even a single product will also be required to adhere to a store-developed regimen of receiving, storing, handling, processing, cleaning, packaging and merchandising protocols—and to keep records of such activities for three years. The Organic Trade Association's Good Organic Retailing Practices Manual and half-day seminars detail department-specific guidelines for developing such protocols (visit www.ota.com).
Some stores are fully embracing the new rule as an opportunity to position themselves as trusted market leaders in the organic farm-to-fork food chain. "For what the organic industry has been pushing for, this is a climactic moment," said Barth Anderson, Organic Retail Certification Coordinator at the Wedge Community Cooperative in Minneapolis.
"We are going to be implementing GORP in our stores," said Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats Markets in Boulder, Colo. "The organic rule is an opportunity for Wild Oats to differentiate itself from other retailers."
Some excluded delis may opt to pursue organic certification of their department or a critical process within it to use the new "USDA Organic" logo. If, for example, a deli wants to continue selling as "certified organic," a certified organic par-baked bread bought frozen from a vendor and baked off in-house, the deli would need to have that bread's entire in-store process, from procurement to sale, certified organic by an accredited USDA certifying agent. Without certification, that par-baked bread could still be sold as "organic," without the USDA logo, as long as the deli could prove it was adhering to required organic protocols.
"Even if you're exempt from the rule, you still have to show that you're handling organic products with integrity," said Anderson. "That's why it behooves you to be familiar with the USDA Final Rule and the GORP manual." (Review the USDA Final Rule at www.ams.usda.gov/nop/nop2000/nop2/finalrulepages/finalrulemap.htm.)
Only delis that process private-label organic products off-site, or those that sell organic products to other stores, are required to become certified. Tuitele said Wild Oats is "not planning on certifying our commissary kitchens," which produce "a lot of the prepared foods sold in our stores." Without certification, products produced in off-premise kitchens will be prohibited from using the term organic in almost every kind of sign or label—even if the products were made exclusively with certified organic ingredients.
In fact, the delis that market some products as organic while continuing to use a significant number of conventional ingredients will have the most work in order to comply with the new labeling law. That's because even excluded delis must still comply with the rules that prevent commingling and contamination of prohibited substances, which includes proper cleaning between and segregated storage and handling of conventional and organic ingredients. "The rules are weighted such to encourage stores to use more organics," Anderson said.
To the dismay of some in the industry, delis may choose to comply with the new law by minimizing their commitment to organic ingredients. "We always store our organic produce separate from our conventional," the deli manager of a college-town cooperative said. "But I'm not willing to risk a $10,000 fine, so we'll not be selling anything as organic." That deli and numerous others plan to simply delete the word organic from every sign and label—except product ingredient lists.
California Organic Program Manager Ray Green said the decision to play it safe may be more about a lack of information than a lack of commitment to organics. "What they need is a little training and an on-site manual of about a dozen pages," Green said. "It is common sense; it's just not common knowledge."
Those who aren't proactive on compliance with the new law may become vulnerable targets for questionable practices at best, or financial penalties of up to $10,000 per violation at worst. Although many inspectors and industry officials believe such fines will not be levied precipitously, Green said: "Until the [federal government] issue[s] some notices of violations, many retailers aren't going to do anything."
Allen Seidner is president of Thought for Food Consulting based in Fairfax, Calif. Contact him by phone at 415.485.5333 or by e-mail at [email protected]
Series Part 1: Retailers Ready For The National Organic Program
Series Part 2: Fine Line Between Certification And Responsibility For Organic Retailers
Series Part 3: NOP Just For Food Products
Series Part 5: Farmers Ready To Face Production, Financial Challenges
Series Part 6: Federal Program Little Help For Foreign Trade
Series Part 7: National Program a Culture Shock for Certifiers
Series Part 8: Distributors Score High Marks for Organic Commitment
Series Part 9: California Retailer Turns a New Leaf on Organic Retailing
Series Part 10: Consumers Know Not What They Eat
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 9