Natural Foods Merchandiser

Co-ops ponder becoming organic cops

Concerned that the American passion for organics might lead to industrywide cheating, a group of natural foods co-ops has commissioned a study to help retailers determine if their partners in commerce are keeping their vows to love, honor and obey the National Organic Program.

Iowa City, Iowa-based National Cooperative Grocers Association, which represents more than 130 U.S. co-ops, is working with the International Organic Accreditation Service to launch an organics fraud protection study for retailers. IOAS, a Dickinson, N.D.-based nonprofit, accredits organic certifiers around the world. It will draw up the guidelines for the study, which is expected to begin early next year and is designed to flush out fraudulently traded organic products and increase the chances of early detection by retailers.

"This whole project has not been launched to point fingers at anyone or anything, but to verify the existing certification systems already in place," said NCGA chief executive Robynn Shrader. "The organic market has grown, and so has the temptation for organic fraud. This may be the result of legitimate suppliers struggling to satisfy the needs of their customers or of other parties becoming aware of the opportunity for fraudulent financial gain."

NCGA spokeswoman Kelly Smith said her organization has been talking for more than a year about some sort of fraud-detection system for retailers, particularly for organic foods that are grown in other countries and exported to the United States. The goal is to offer retailers options to assure their customers that the organic label continues to remain meaningful. "We want to add a safety checkpoint to make retailers feel empowered," she said.

All foods labeled organic in the United States must be certified by a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved certifier. But Ken Commins, executive director of IOAS' U.S. offices, said there have been large-scale cases of inaccurately labeled organics in Europe, and he is concerned the same thing could happen in the United States. "When there's an imbalance in supply and demand, that can lead to fraud."

Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, emphasized that it's important to note that the NCGA has not identified any cases of organics fraud in the United States. PCC, along with Hanover, N.H.-based Hanover Co-op Food Stores and Los Angeles-based Unified Grocers, is funding the NCGA study. But as more organics are imported into the United States to meet consumer demand, retailers like PCC want "to see how the USDA organic standards are implemented on a global scale. Certainly there are some concerns about organics from China," Bialic said.

Joan Schaffer, spokeswoman for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which administers the NOP, said certification standards are the same for all organic products sold in America.

"The National Organic Program standards are size-neutral and distance-neutral," Shaffer said. "If a tomato is marketed as organic in the U.S., it has to meet the same standards whether it was grown on 50 acres in Vermont or 100,000 acres in Bolivia."

If a certifier incorrectly certifies a product as organic, the USDA can revoke its status as an NOP-approved certifier for three years. Shaffer said since the NOP went into effect, one certifier has been revoked: American Food Safety Institute International, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., which lost its certification status in June 2006 after seven serious NOP violations.

Schaffer said input from retailers or anyone else who suspects organics fraud is important to the NOP, and encouraged people to report fraud accusations to [email protected] In addition, she said NOP staff regularly conducts retail surveillance, pulling products from shelves and checking to see if they comply with organic labeling requirements.

Based on study results, the plan is to have some sort of system or handbook by mid-2008 that offers guidelines for retailers to combat organics fraud in their stores. Whatever is decided upon, "it needs to be relatively simple and cost-effective," Smith said.

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 1,14

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