Grocery Co-ops Seek Organic Certification

Fifteen years of pushing for a federal organic law came to fruition on October 21, 2002 when the USDA's Final Rule on Organics went into effect. While most of the new Rule simply puts federal muscle behind the organic certification process as it's existed for years, one new wrinkle has been added: organic certification for retail stores.

During the Organic Trade Association's trade show in Austin last year, I figured out how important this new wrinkle is. My employer, Wedge Co-op , had asked me to study the new USDA Rule on Organics and OTA's Good Organic Retail Practices Manual to see if retail certification was a good option for us. I wasn't convinced. The GORP Manual seemed like an impossible set of hurdles over which most stores wouldn't be able to jump: strict cleaning regimens, logs for recording cleaning tasks between handling of conventional and organic produce, resets to prevent commingling and contamination. I went to the OTA trade show thinking, "Retail certification is all foot race and no trophy."

But over tacos at a cafe, Joyce Ford, one of The GORP Manual's authors, convinced me that whether the Organic Trade Association intended it or not, organic retail certification was built for co-ops precisely because it was so difficult. Many hurdles, yes, but those hurdles would favor small, nimble stores with motivated workers over ponderous corporate chains whose directives trickle down from distant offices to disinterested employees.

Retail certification, I realized, was a strategic gift from the organic industry to its old allies, the grocery cooperatives.

Building a certified store

I came home from the OTA trade show very, very psyched. I told our general manager Dan Foley that I had seen the light and that the Wedge had to seek certification. I think I convinced (or scared) him with my disturbing passion for the task, and he decided the Wedge should try to be the first organically certified store in Minnesota.

The co-op message is very similar to the organic message, and retail certification gives you an added marketing perk.

The Wedge is big by co-op standards at 23,000 square feet and over $20 million in annual sales. Luckily, the USDA Rule allows stores to seek certification department by department, so I started writing the mandatory handling plan for those departments in which organic handling practices would be most self-evident: Produce, Meat, Cheese, Bakery, Juice Bar, and the pivotal Co-op Partners Warehouse, our wholesale program. The first three departments on this list sell 100% organic product, making the new and intricate labeling rules a real breeze. The Juice Bar made organic smoothies in dedicated "organic" blenders already, and the Bakery simply had to prepare its 95-100% organic breads before the non-organic loaves. Not terribly difficult.

Going That Extra Mile

By Cissy Bowman

Barth Anderson's accompanying article on the certification of cooperative groceries presents wonderful examples of commitment to consumers and organics. The story also proves that the procedures for such certification are not as cumbersome or ambiguous as many have suggested.

A brief history

Going back to the Organic Foods Production Act, the law clearly states that retailers who "process" are required to be certified. In the USDA Final Organic Rule, however, this requirement was altered. Under § 205.101 Exemptions and exclusions from certification,

"a handling operation that is a retail food establishment or portion of a retail food establishment that handles organically produced agricultural products but does not process them is exempt from the requirements [of certification];"
"a handling operation that is a retail food establishment or portion of a retail food establishment that processes, on the premises of the retail food establishment, raw and ready-to-eat food from agricultural products that were previously labeled as "100 percent organic," "organic," or "made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))" is excluded from the requirements in this part, except:

(i) The requirements for the prevention of contact with prohibited substances as set forth in § 205.272; and
(ii) The labeling provisions of § 205.310."
"maintain records sufficient to:
(i) Prove that ingredients identified as organic were organically produced and handled; and
(ii) Verify quantities produced from such ingredients.
(2) Records must be maintained for no less than 3 years beyond their creation..."

The cost of retail certification...

Certifiers have very different fee assessment structures, and each operation is different, so prices are sure to vary greatly. Things to look for when "shopping" for a certifier include:

  • USDA accreditation
  • Sufficient expertise in inspectors and the certification review team to adequately evaluate your operation.
  • Investigation into the total cost of your certification for the year. (Certification is renewed annually; however, many certifiers charge for more than just the service of certification. Make sure when you consider your total cost that you take into consideration any other fees. These might include membership fees and/or "user fees" which are based on a percentage of your total gross sales of organic products.
  • A friendly and efficient staff.

NOTE: Provisions in the most recent Farm Bill offer a cost share for certification in 2002. The cost share will reimburse certified organic producers and handlers (a retailer may be considered a handler) 75% of the cost of their certification up to $500. More information will become available on this cost share as states determine how to distribute this money. Check with your department of agriculture about the cost share, but as this is new information, don't expect them to know much about it yet.

Why get certified?

From a business perspective, the certification process can greatly enhance a retailer's ability to comply with the requirements of the regulation. Even though under the USDA Organic Rule certification for retailers is not required at this time, there is a requirement to document that the ingredients are organic, keep records on the quantities of organic product, have procedures in place to prevent commingling with non-organic products and contamination with prohibited substances, and maintain compliance with the labeling provisions of the law. On the practical level, there is, indeed, no better way to document such compliance than by getting certified.

More importantly, however, when retailers step up and goes that extra mile to get certified, they are making a loud and clear statement to the consumer. The message is that they CARE --about the integrity of the organic products that they sell and about making sure that things are done right. It shows commitment to organics from seed to table. Despite the complaining of many retailers about it being impossible to certify something as complex as a store, places like the Wedge and Oryana are showing it can be done. It sets an example for the industry -- one to be applauded.

For more information on the USDA Organic regulations, visit:

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