Certified. It's the key word. And when the National Organic Program rules take effect Oct. 21, retailers can use it to their advantage or at their peril.
Everyone in the natural foods industry will finally get their wish for a standard, nationwide set of organic products rules, but there's no doubt that some retailers are confused about the type of labels they can put on products and the terms they can use in their stores. Customers, too, will bring plenty of questions about the organic rules, so frontline retail employees will need good information to provide accurate answers.
Overall, it appears most retailers have only recently started paying attention to how the rules will apply to their stores, says Barbara Haumann, who handles communications for the Organic Trade Association. Since late 2000, the OTA has been sponsoring training sessions for retailers at various trade shows, but until this year they've been sparsely attended.
"Retailers are really starting to realize the importance of this," Haumann says. "Now people are awaking to the realization that 'we've got to do something.'"
Although some retailers were compelled by state programs to comply with local organic handling regulations, few have gotten around to developing the type of comprehensive programs that would allow them to be a certified entity under NOP rules.
"There was an 18-month compliance period, so people really should have gotten off their butts," says Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards for Wild Oats Markets Inc. "I would say, conservatively, that we [at Wild Oats] are six months behind and realistically a year behind. The interesting thing is, the OTA says, 'You're way ahead of others.'"
Mulry is heading up Wild Oats' Good Organic Retail Practices task force. By the time the chain rolls out its program in September, more than 8,000 employees will have received training, and new handling and merchandising procedures will have been incorporated into the grocery chain's new-employee orientation training.
"Basically, we're going to squeak by with a good program," Mulry says. "We're not going to cut corners, but it's incredibly late."
In recent months, calls to the OTA started coming in from retailers around the country wondering how the organic rules should be applied in stores. Training sessions offered by co-ops, distributors and the OTA are now drawing strong attendance.
Rules Mean A Little, Or A Lot
So what do the rules mean for a retailer?
Well, as much or as little as you want them to.
Officially, retailers are exempt from the organic act rules, explains Harriet Behar, chairwoman of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association board and an independent organic inspector based in Wisconsin. But to gain the faith of consumers and a marketing advantage, retailers should begin to apply the rules and standards published in the OTA's Good Organic Retail Practices Manualâcommonly known as GORP.
Behar, who helped write the GORP Manual, explains that the 3-inch-thick book provides all the details about how foods must be handled, stored, rinsed, cut, labeled, chilled, prepared, displayed, etc. But, depending on the intention of the store operator, just reading the manual won't be enough.
Like suppliers, retailers can choose to obtain the "certified organic" label for their stores, but this requires a rigorous third-party certification process.
"It is confusing," Behar says. "Until the new 'organic rules' implementation in October 2002, we're not sure how it's going to affect retailers."
In general, to comply with the GORP rules, stores must concentrate, primarily, on the following:
Training: Employees must learn all aspects of food handling, display, storage, etc. In other words, they must be very familiar with GORP.
Food handling: Produce, prepared foods and meat products must be handled and displayed so they don't become contaminated by chemicals or residues of nonorganic products. Prepackaged products can be sold as certified organic because they are sealed.
Sanitation: Food can't come in contact with any type of chemicals, so a strict cleaning regimen must be followed to ensure that counters, cutting boards, floors and any tools or utensils are not contaminated.
Record keeping: Store operators must know the origin of all their products, how they were shipped and must maintain records to provide proof.
Stores that follow the basic practices outlined in the GORP Manual can say they sell organic products. To claim they are "certified organic" requires a level of preparation that no doubt will prove daunting, but not impossible.
Going All The Way
In 2000, managers of the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis decided to obtain organic certification. Organic Retail Certification Coordinator Barth Anderson says preparing took more than a year and the work proved almost overwhelming. "There's a waterfall of details. The rules are complex; it's very involved," he explains. "We decided to get an inspection from the OTA early on. It became obvious pretty quickly what had to be done."
The GORP Manual guided his work. Instructions ranged from the simple to the complex.
Developing handling and merchandising procedures was relatively simple. Items in the frozen food and dairy cases and on shelves were rearranged to group like itemsâcertified organic, organic or conventionalâtogether. For the produce department, Anderson purchased new display containersâshelving, counters and basketsâfree of dyes or other contaminants. In some cases Plexiglas panels separate certified organic produce from conventional items.
Developing a record-keeping system to track every organic product that lands on the store's loading dock was more complex. "It's difficult because we receive thousands of different boxes containing thousands of different products," Anderson says. "It does slow the process down, but it does work."
A similar system tracks cleaning materials and supplies, procedures and schedules. Anderson also wrote a store manual detailing how produce and other items must be handled.
Wild Oats' Mulry says developing procedures is the easy part. "We think the biggest challenge is employee training," she says. Employees must be conditioned to follow proceduresâin the cheese department, for example, organic products are to be cut and wrapped first, then work can begin on conventional products.
"We are educating employees so it becomes somewhat institutionalized in their behaviors," she says. "What it really comes down to is operationally doing the right thing."
Employee training classes were set up at the Wedge, complete with tests. Wild Oats will monitor compliance with regular in-store audits.
Mulry says educating consumers will be an important part of Wild Oats' program.
The grocer is redoing all of the signage in the produce and bulk foods departmentsâgreen for organic and gold for conventionalâto be consistent chainwide. In September and October, the company will host in-store events designed to raise awareness of the new labeling program. The Wedge helps its customers along with bright yellow stickers affixed to most certified organic products.
As tough as preparing for certification was, Anderson says, customers are already noticing new signage, displays and product placement. "Ultimately it's a great marketing tool. We're telling our clients, 'Here's how we're taking care of the products you want.'"
Joseph P. Lewandowski is a freelance writer and editor in Fort Collins, Colo. He can be reached at [email protected]
Additional reporting by Dana Coffield.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 14, 18, 20