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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Secret shopper: How do I know a product is really organic?

organic grocery
Make sure your employees can prove the organic products in your store actually are organic.

While the USDA Organic seal guarantees a product is organic, the lack of that seal doesn't mean a product isn't organic. Here's what your employees need to know about different organic certifications—especially those from local suppliers.

Our secret shopper visited a natural grocer in the Mid-South.

NFM: I’ve heard that many foods marked organic are not in fact organic. How do I know which to trust?

Retailer: If you see the USDA Organic seal on a package, you can trust it’s organic. I think you might be referring more to produce, which doesn’t always have a seal, so there could be some funny business there. I think it comes down to where you buy your produce. All of our organic fruits and vegetables come from sources we trust, so we are sure that they really are organic.

NFM: That’s great—and I do trust your store. But if I wanted to double-check something that you or another retailer sells, is there a way to do that?

Retailer: It’s always good to ask questions. You could ask our produce buyer for more info or do your own research on a farm that provides produce for a store.

How did this retailer do?

Gwendolyn Wyard, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the Organic Trade AssociationOur expert educator: Gwendolyn Wyard,
vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the Organic Trade Association  

The retailer is off to a good start, but there is more to know. The USDA Organic seal is one way to know a product is certified organic—but be careful because the seal is optional and not required on certified-organic products. Also, it’s not allowed on products certified as “made with organic (specified ingredients/food products).”

It’s important to know that the term organic is a federally regulated label claim. Any organic claim made on the front panel of a product means it must be certified to USDA National Organic Program regulations, and the company making the claim is legally liable. On a packaged product, if you see organic on the front panel, look for the required certifier statement under the name of the manufacturer or distributor of the product. You should see, for example, “Certified Organic by CCOF.” If you do not see a certifier statement, the product likely isn’t certified and it is time to ask questions.

It is true that unpacked products, such as produce, can be more difficult to evaluate, but there shouldn’t be any “funny business.” For organic produce, look for a 9 prefix to the price look-up (PLU) code, which designates organic (example: 94011). But for any product in the store that is marketed as organic, the retailer should be able to provide information or documentation, such as the organic certificate, to verify.

I agree that it is always good to ask questions. Retailers should know their suppliers and be able to demonstrate organic certification to the shopper. Finally, anyone can look up a product or company on the USDA Organic Integrity Database to confirm certification.

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