By now you would think most stores should have everything in place so that their organic produce departments are in compliance with the new federal organic rule that took effect Oct. 21. But some retailers seem to have been taken by surprise. It's amazing to me how something that was announced in 1990, talked about in trade journals and newspaper articles for 10 years, and was even on the cover of Newsweek last fall, could slip under some folks' radar. For example—just the other day I had a retailer ask if a local grower who used Roundup herbicide could be considered organic. Or could the grower use pesticide-free as an organic labeling term? Of course, the answer to both is no.
What causes the confusion? Is it a lack of information? I think not. Could it be a lack of clear information? Perhaps. Interpretations of the rule vary from source to source.
You can review the rule on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site, but because it was posted as a work in progress, some things changed between the time the rule was initially posted and when it was implemented.
The Organic Trade Association developed a training program called GORP, or good organic retail practices, along with the GORP Training Manual, which provides a well-written set of suggestions on how retailers can make sure they comply with the rule. Even with training available at both Natural Products Expo West and East, the OTA's All Things Organic Conference and Tradeshow and at other events across the country, GORP training was sparsely attended when it was initially offered. Also, the Food Marketing Institute wrote a document telling retailers what to do to be in compliance with the organic rule—which had yet another interpretation.
Perhaps the lack of a cohesive voice that brought it all together for retailers was the problem. Or perhaps they were too busy to be proactive and relied on the usual approach of being reactive.
It's funny though—retailers and their customers overwhelmed the USDA with comments against GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation being accepted in the new organic regulations but had very little to say after the initial proposal was withdrawn and the next round of retail input was being sought.
One thing to remember is that this rule, like any law, is not perfect and will never please everybody. Remember, this is a living, breathing document and the opportunity for input and change is possible. And input is absolutely necessary.
This rule will need constant vigilance. And, like any good idea that involves growth and investment opportunities, someone will always look for ways to weaken the regulations. We've already seen it happen. In February, language hidden in the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill gutted organic livestock standards.(See "Politicking Muddles NOP.")
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is preparing a bill to repeal the loophole. And while I know this isn't produce-related, fruits and vegetables could be next. Weakening any part of the rule weakens the whole. We need to be ready to defend the organic principles we've worked hard to achieve.
On a daily basis we produce managers can do our part by being in compliance ourselves. I'd also like to suggest working with growers who need help with certification. One northern California store has a stipend program through which customers can donate the 5 cents they get from using their own bags to a fund to help small farmers get certified.
Another idea is working with growers who are still growing with organic methods but are choosing not to be certified. You can help those growers come up with a labeling designation to help customers understand the value of their produce. A regional focus about benefits the individual farm brings to the community might be a good start. Everything we do makes a difference, and we have an opportunity to show industry newcomers how to do good organic retailing and what organic is really all about: the future of food and agriculture.
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or by e-mail at email@example.com.