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Making Produce a Priority

April 24, 2008

7 Min Read
Making Produce a Priority

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


When consumers rank what they're looking for in a supermarket, a good produce department always lands at the top of the list. For health-conscious and environmentally aware consumers, that means not only a strong focus on organic produce, but also a well-educated staff and a program in place to maintain organic integrity in compliance with federal regulations.

If retailers who don't offer a strong organic produce department are vulnerable to competition, those who do clearly have an advantage. What's more, retailers who position themselves clearly as having an understanding of and commitment to organic foods issues gain credibility.

It isn't just a matter of image. As retailers should know, in 2002 the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented federal laws concerning production, labeling and handling of organic foods. Under the National Organic Program, retailers are not required to be certified, as handlers and growers are. But they are accountable for knowing and adhering to laws regarding treatment of organic foods, especially fresh foods, and are subject to fines for violating these laws.

First Impressions In Front
Many natural products markets are designed with the entryway leading directly into the produce department. More than ever, this makes the appearance of the produce area paramount. Displays should feature abundant, colorful and fresh seasonal produce arranged for easy access and with a plentiful supply of reachable bags and ties. Cleanliness counts more than any other value for consumers. Good, bright lighting and a sense of spaciousness add to the impact of fresh foods.

These things might seem obvious, but introducing organic produce to the mix adds new priorities. These include a system of signage that clearly identifies whether produce is organic or conventional, along with variety, price and country or state of origin (many organic-minded consumers like to know where their food is grown). Other appropriate "eco-labels," such as biodynamic, can be used as well. Be sure you know what each label means and the specific standards behind it.

Opinions differ on the benefits of integrating organic and conventional produce versus segregating organic items in a separate area. Offering them side-by-side may help customers make visual comparisons and increase their awareness of the organic alternative. Retailers who choose this option must, by law, prevent commingling between organic and conventional goods by use of physical barriers such as clear plastic dividers or baskets.

Prevent Contamination
These barriers are intended to prevent contamination of organic produce by substances such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers used on conventional produce and prohibited in organic production. In short, retailers are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the organic claim from the time the produce arrives at the store until it enters the customer's hands. Because organic foods are likely to carry a higher price, the organic standard must be protected.

"Consumers assume they're getting what they pay for," says Marty Mesh, executive director of Gainesville, Fla.-based nonprofit Florida Organic Growers and Consumers Inc., whose USDA-accredited certifying program, Quality Certification Services, works with growers and retailers around the country. "It's vital to take care not to commingle produce or have it set up in a way that has potential to violate the integrity of the certified organic produce, such as having misters dripping down on conventional produce and then onto organic produce below it."

Compliance with organic regulations is sometimes simpler if organic items are grouped in their own area. This can eliminate such contamination problems as drip from misting, or make it easier to cover and protect organic produce if applying pest control or cleaning chemicals. "Something that's used to 'fog' the store may be acceptable in a retail food establishment; that doesn't mean it's compliant with the National Organic Program, whether it's in the back room or front of the store," Mesh says. "Obviously [retailers] don't want bugs running around, but they also need to take steps to make sure [their pest control program] doesn't violate the integrity of organic produce."

If a segregated organic section is your best option, it should be easy to find and be given as much prominence and attention to presentation and upkeep as the rest of the department. Avoid creating a dimly lit, poorly stocked, organic "bad neighborhood" in the back of the produce area. Instead, make it a highlight of the store, emphasizing flavor, freshness and premium produce quality.

"The days of being able to sell something just because it's organic are long over," says Brian Leahy, president of California Certified Organic Farmers, a private, nonprofit, USDA-accredited certifying agency based in Santa Cruz, Calif., that also works with growers and retailers nationwide. "Some of our fruit growers say they don't feel like they get a premium for organic—they're getting the premium for the quality they provide, the flavor and appearance [as much as for the organic label]."

Back Room Basics
If the front end of an organic produce department is a celebration of beauty, quality and abundance, then the back end must be a tribute to systematic organization and recordkeeping. Workers can make costly mistakes in noncompliance with federal regulations by failing to store organic produce separately from conventional, neglecting to track organic certification on all incoming deliveries, and ignoring organic handling regulations.

"A common mistake is not ensuring that there are current good certificates [from growers and producers] on record from a USDA-accredited certifier," says FOG's Mesh. "Retailers need to do their due diligence. If they're buying produce and putting it out as organic, it has to be certified by an accredited certifier and the documentation must be easily available."

Employees must prevent commingling and contamination with the same awareness in the back of the house as in the front. "Farmers have gone to a lot of trouble to grow organically, to get organic seeds, use organic practices, have farms certified and inspected. The food has been handled, moved and transported with a verification system in place. It would be a shame for produce to lose its organic integrity at the retail level," Mesh says.

The Extra Organic Mile
Both QCS and CCOF work with retailers to offer training and education services, as well as optional certification. Most other accredited certifiers, as well as the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association, offer education about retailer requirements for handling organic foods. CCOF's Leahy encourages retailers to put greater focus on education for both consumers and employees. "We've created a video that retailers can use to help educate people," Leahy says. "Your work force needs to be really sold on organic. If you believe in what you're selling you just do a better job of it."

That belief is strengthened, Leahy believes, when stores make a commitment to building community and relationships with produce growers. "Whenever you can highlight the local grower, that helps," he says. Farmer profiles or photos of a crop's grower in the field can help tell the story of where the food comes from and, in turn, help customers relate to the importance of organic agriculture in the community. "Retailers should consider their suppliers as part of their business and part of their community," Leahy says.

While most retailers can't limit their organic produce to only seasonal choices from local growers, taking advantage of every opportunity to do so helps reaffirm the values of the organic movement, Leahy says. "Here in Santa Cruz, we can get away with saying that 'karma is a cost.' The consumer eventually pays for unsustainable practices. Conversely, where you're dealing with someone where everyone is treated fairly, there's a benefit there."

Elaine Lipson ([email protected]) is a writer, editor and author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill Contemporary, 2001), a guidebook that answers the most-asked questions about organic foods and farming.

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