Natural Foods Merchandiser

Seal success with store certification

For most retailers, the hard work of selling organics is already under way. You're filing certificates on all the organic produce, meat and bulk items that come through the back door, separating your organic produce in the cooler, even us?ing separate cutting boards and utensils for the organic items in the deli case. But to instill even more consumer confidence, there's a next step: organic retailer certifi?cation. But how does a store go about getting certified—and is it affordable?

For retailers considering certification, there are two key places to turn for information. The first is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site for the National Organic Program (, which lists accredited certifying agencies, gives state-by-state contacts, describes the procedure for retailer certification and provides information on programs that reimburse retailers for some of the costs associated with certification. The second resource is the Good Organic Retailing Practices manual, published by the Organic Trade Association. This handbook specifies proper handling procedures for every store category, including bulk foods, meats, prepared foods and fresh produce.

"What it means for a retailer to be certified is that they've voluntarily decided to have a certifier review all their organic handling practices," says Jake Lewin, certifi?cation services director for California Certified Organic Farmers, based in Santa Cruz, Calif.

One of the first stores in the country to undergo certification was the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, which achieved certification shortly after the organic rule went into effect. "As a store, you're paying the organic certifier, and out of that money they pay an organic inspector," says Barth Anderson, research and development coordinator for the Wedge. "Whether the certifier is a private company or a state employee, the inspector is not an employee of the certifier. There's a pool of trained inspectors, certified by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]."

Though a retailer can certify a whole store, it rarely makes sense to certify a grocery department, Lewin says. "The most commonly certified department is produce, followed closely by bulk goods and meat cases," Lewin says. "Trickier areas are the deli, because of the changing menu, and cheese cases, because many cheeses come from foreign countries whose certification may not be recognized by USDA."

The cost of certification can be surprisingly low, making the process possible even for smaller stores. "Every organic certifier bases their fees differently," Lewin says. "CCOF bases certification on the square footage of the department seeking certification, and we routinely certify retailers for around $1,000 per year."

During the certification process, the certifier will work with the retailer to ensure that necessary procedures are in place and that all paperwork for organic products is on file. "With a retailer, we look at receiving, storage, sourcing and record-keeping—the same information we require of a producer or manufacturer," says Kristy Kolb, certification director for Oregon Tilth, based in Salem, Ore. "We'll help them address contamination issues, pest-management systems and employee-training programs."

During subsequent annual inspections by a USDA-approved inspector, a retailer will be asked to provide a full paper trail, usually for a single product or category chosen at random for each certified department. For example, if the meat department has been certified organic, the inspector may ask to see all certificates for organic ground beef for the previous year, and then compare those to the register receipts to assure that the amount of beef brought in equals the amount being sold.

"We were already keeping organic certificates for everything we bought directly," says Anderson of the Wedge. "Being able to create the audit trail is the key for a lot of retailers." If a retailer is already tracking certificates for all organic shipments, and handling organic products properly—by segregating the cooler, for example, or thoroughly cleaning prep areas before cutting organic produce—a store may find that most of the required procedures are already in place.

"Certification is a process a retailer can achieve in a couple months, with the caveat that they need to prepare their systems and record-keeping prior to starting the process," Lewin says. In many cases, additional staff training in organic handling practices is required.

In addition to demonstrating support for organics, certification can also be a valuable marketing tool. "For us, it was a matter of being able to say that we take organics seriously, to throw our arms around the farmer and say, 'We do what they do,' " Anderson says.

"If you can't explain certification to the consumer, there's probably not a compelling reason to get certified," Lewin says. He points out that certification can have an impact on the labeling and signage that stores can employ to call attention to items, particularly meats and produce.

Key to marketing efforts is a subtle distinction between 'organic' and 'certified organic,' as set out in the national organic standards. "With products that are physically handled by retailers, like produce, bulk goods and meats, it must be received as certified organic," Lewin says. "However, if a retailer isn't certified, they can sell it as organic, but not as certified organic. It loses certification between the back door and the shelf. In one way, it's a technicality, but in another it's an important distinction."

Once a retailer is certified, a store can use both the USDA organic seal and the seal of the certifier in all its in-store signage and information. "Bottom line, if a retailer makes a price sign and wants to use the USDA seal or the words 'certified organic,' the only way to do that is [through] certification," Lewin says.

In many cases, private certifiers also offer stores public-relations and marketing support, consumer-education materials and even membership in their private trade organizations, which may include directory listings and monthly publications.

Retailers will likely find it's much easier to gather the necessary documentation for certification now than in the months just after the organic rule was established. "Because we're now so far past the implementation of the organic rule, manufacturers and growers have taken care of their end of the organic chain already," Anderson says. "We were pioneers, so we took all the arrows, but now a lot of the paperwork is done for you already."

From a marketing perspective, certification can help instill consumer confidence. "Especially for a smaller store, it's good marketing leverage to be able to say you're certified organic," Anderson says. "That way you can answer customers who ask, 'How do you really know?' They'll look for your sign or USDA seal, so having clear signage is essential."

"There's a lot of market research indicating that certifier and USDA seals contribute to consumer confidence in, and acceptance of, organic products," Lewin says. "That would lead us to assume that the same seals would help retailers sell more produce."

Two large chains, Whole Foods and the mainstream retailer Cub Foods, have been certified organic by Quality Assurance International, an organic certifier based in San Diego. "Because there are so many players jumping into the game now, with Wal-Mart and everybody selling organic, taking these extra steps shows both the consumers and farmers who value integrity that the retailer does too," Anderson says.

For retailers already paying careful attention to organic handling procedures and the paper trail for certified goods, taking the extra step of achieving retailer certification may not be as daunting as it seems.

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.16,18

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