Selling organic produce is a lot like Dorothy?s trip down the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. Until the ominous wizard says, ?Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,? Dorothy and her pals assume the wizard knows how to provide a heart, a brain, and a way home. Our customers may be doing something similar when they shop in our stores. They assume that since we are displaying and selling organics we must be doing it right.
And you would think that would be the case since it has been nearly three years since the federal organic rule passed, right? Well, we?re not quite there yet.
In stores all over the country I still see problems on a regular basis with even basic issues, like commingling of conventional and organic produce. Or stores whose signs claim a product is certified organic even though their departments aren?t certified.
With this in mind I set up a challenge booth at the All Things Organic show in Chicago in May.
Together with Bruce Grimm, the produce buyer from the Mustard Seed Market in Solon, Ohio, I created a demonstration produce department that was set up to violate good organic retailing practices and the federal organic rule. I then proceeded, over the next three days, to walk nearly 100 people through the booth to see if they could spot the mistakes. They included produce folks from supermarkets, supernaturals, co-ops and independent natural food retailers. While most could spot many of the mistakes, very few caught them all—including people whose stores were certified.
Here are some of the other rules that were violated in my booth and, as people admitted, aren?t always followed in produce departments:
- Use separate knives for organic and conventional products when trimming or sampling produce, or clean your knife in between. Most people were aware of this rule, but many admitted they could use improvement in carrying it out.
- If you cut fruit (say, you cut a watermelon in half or make a fruit cup), you can no longer call it certified organic even if it began that way.
- If you use similar display materials, such as baskets, for conventional and organic produce you must either label them appropriately or have a cleaning process in place that prevents cross-contamination if commingling does occur.
- Organic and fair trade are not necessarily the same. Some, but not all, fair trade products are organically grown, and they can?t be commingled if they?re not.
- You can use chlorine bleach for cleaning as long as the final rinse water is within the Safe Drinking Water Act standards. You should use test strips for verification.
- All organic produce boxes must be labeled as such with the grower?s name, the product name and the certifier; otherwise they?re not in compliance. Many of the produce people admitted to being lax on this requirement, especially with deliveries from local producers and repacks from distributors. If one of your local growers is using recycled boxes, the box must have previously contained only organic product, and it must have any reference to the previous farm removed or crossed out so there?s no confusion as to where the product came from.
- Proper invoicing is connected to labeling since it is part of the paper trail that we can follow back to the source. Local growers are sometimes allowed to submit incomplete invoices. This may come from old receiving processes or a familiar relationship that fosters less stringent standards. Whatever the cause, the invoice needs to correctly reflect exactly what is on the label (see No. 6) and received. If not, you?re not in compliance.
Many produce departments have signs hanging up that ask, ?What is organic?? and then list several criteria that are supposed to aid customers in a better understanding of the process or terms. One of the statements that I most often find is, ?Organic produce contains no synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers.? This is simply not true. And one store proudly showed me its most recent newsletter, which included that very statement. While there are no synthetic fertilizers allowed, some synthetic pest controls are allowed as approved substances. We need to be careful about what we are putting out there as fact.
We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. With organic growth showing no sign of slowing down and new customers putting their trust in us every day, perhaps it?s time to do our own in-store evaluations and make sure we are not a sham behind a curtain but are maintaining the organic integrity that they believe we stand for.
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 7/p. 33