Natural Foods Merchandiser

Fine Line Between Certification And Responsibility For Organic Retailers

Retailers fought on the front lines three years ago when the Department of Agriculture tried to compromise the integrity of the term organic with its first federal rule. Three hundred thousand comments later, the industry's efforts to shape the regulation were successful. But with the NOP implementation date approaching, many store operators have their heads stuck in the sand regarding their obligatory role in upholding the integrity of the organic supply chain—from field to fork—hoping that the USDA forgets them entirely.

The vast majority of retail businesses in the organic trade are currently excluded from certification requirements under the NOP. But whether or not retailers choose to voluntarily certify the organic integrity of their operations, they have responsibilities under the rule for handling and labeling much of the organic product they sell.

"Whether they're certified or not," said Ray Green, supervisor with the State of California, Department of Food and Agriculture, Division of Inspection Services, "they have to be prepared to answer the question, 'What gives you the legal right to market this product as organic?'"

From how retailers set and label their produce stands to the invoice systems in their bulk departments; from labels on packaged goods in their grocery aisles to storage containers in coolers, the federal rule contains specific labeling and handling requirements for organic foods retailers, even though those stores don't need to be inspected and certified.

Green travels the state of California regularly, trying to teach the basics of good organic retailing practices. Last year he made 20 presentations, and despite publicity through trade associations, newspapers and county offices, as well as offering the service for free, he said attendance was "atrocious."

He believes retailers don't want to hear about their responsibilities under the national program unless legally required or until inspected. His office conducted 100 such inspections last year. Inspectors phone first, because the visits are primarily educational in function. Inspectors use a checklist that includes risk areas in fresh produce, display and storage, prep areas, packaged foods and bulk bins. They check what the store is doing for pest and rodent control, and they evaluate invoices.

The department rarely levels fines because for most retail stores the inspection is the first time store staff have heard of specific responsibilities. But Green said almost every store has handling and labeling violations. "It's extremely common to see unpackaged organic product touching nonorganic [in produce displays]," Green said. "And technically speaking, the company or persons in control or custody of the [mislabeled] product are the ones that get the violation."

California is one of the few states where proactive investigations occur; but Green's department isn't the only source for information regarding responsibility under the NOP. Retail requirements of USDA's rule is part of the seminar Joyce Ford designed to accompany the Organic Trade Association's "Good Organic Retailing Practices" handbook, which she co-wrote as well.

Although most retail operations fall under the excluded category of businesses, Ford said, "They do need to follow the Organic Rule, Section 205.272, mandating the prevention of commingling with nonorganic products and prevention of contact with prohibited substances." When it comes to the labels on the organic foods for sale in their stores, according to earlier sections of the regulation, Ford said retailers must ensure, through invoices or documentation, that the products they sell as organic are, indeed, organic.

The training Ford designed, available next month at Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif., lays out everything retailers need to know about the NOP. They get information on the rule and how to use the manual, and they get a display diploma for the person completing the training. Ford also put together policy statements and employee manual examples on a CD-ROM, which will help retailers train their staff. "We also have a lot of employee training aids retailers can implement as is or readjust according to their program," Ford said.

The majority of attendees at Ford's seminars are unaware of their labeling and handling responsibilities. But there are retailers who have successfully certified their stores or implemented systems to guarantee compliance with the rule, said Mark King, retail representative to the National Organics Standard Board.

In his experience, many stores may already comply with the display and backroom provisions. And the documentation and record keeping involved seem less daunting to retailers the more they learn about the program. "In many cases, like at the Wedge Co-op in the Twin Cities, it was just a matter of integrating [these systems] into the ones they already had in place," King said.

But right now, King admits that he and the other members of the NOSB believe the word is slow getting out. Ford reports that attendance at recent OTA presentations was less than expected. Some retailers are worried that complying with the program will require at least a couple of added staff members. And if they're not specifically required, why should they bother?

As it stands, the requirements for retailers under the NOP don't have much enforcement bite behind their regulatory teeth. In the absence of a proactive state organic program, which at best would exist in less than 30 percent of states by the end of this year, retailers won't be inspected.

The only way a store would face civil penalties for failure to uphold organic integrity is if an informed consumer complained about it to the federal authorities. "In reality," Green said, "they can stick their heads in the sand and ignore the bureaucracy because there's nobody out there to check on them."

Series Part 1: Retailers Ready For The National Organic Program
Series Part 3: NOP Just For Food Products
Series Part 4: Certified Organic Delis Offer Opportunities And Challenges
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 2/p. 7, 10

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