THE FINAL STEP?

Supermarkets of all sizes are setting aside more shelf space for organic food products -- especially produce, meat and poultry. Yet not every one of them is opting to go through the expensive and time-consuming organic certification process.The value of certification is the first question retailers need to consider. Under the National Organic Program, only those retailers that process and package

Supermarkets of all sizes are setting aside more shelf space for organic food products -- especially produce, meat and poultry. Yet not every one of them is opting to go through the expensive and time-consuming organic certification process.

The value of certification is the first question retailers need to consider. Under the National Organic Program, only those retailers that process and package organic food items must be reviewed by a USDA-approved, third-party certifier. One of the larger firms, Quality Assurance International, San Diego, is in the process of inspecting and certifying 25 chains and smaller grocery stores. At the same, California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, Calif., has been working with a regional chain operator.

"Retail is a booming business," said Margaret Scoles, executive director of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, Broadbus, Mon., which now has more than 30 inspectors trained for store inspections.

Chains as large as Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., and Cincinnati-based Kroger, have been reportedly been inquiring about, or actively pursuing, store approvals.

"QAI has noticed a significant increase in mainstream or conventional retailers seeking information on the process of organic certification," said Ellen P. Holton, director of marketing. "Though some of the requirements may be more arduous, the general consensus among retailers is that they realize it is a great marketing tool for them."

Indeed, certification can give individual stores an edge in a crowded marketplace and may be the primary business reason stores pursue approval.

"Retail is really going toward organic certification, especially in the meat department, which is the fastest-growing segment today," according to Rod Crossley, an industry consultant and former member of the National Organic Standards Board.

Crossley pointed out that Safeway has already been a leader in issuing its own organic private-label products, and became the first major retailer to get its milling and grain processing operation certified.

Patti Bursten-Deutsch, who has inspected retailers in Wisconsin, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas and Michigan, believes the decision to pursue certification serves as a demonstration of a retailer's commitment to the principals of the natural and organic lifestyle and helps assure customers they are maintaining the integrity of the organic product.

"It also gives them a competitive edge over other retailers," she said.

Robert Gerner, owner of The Natural Grocery Co., El Cerrito, Calif., said certification helps protect his customer base in a market where he faces competition from Safeway, Trader Joe's and Costco.

"We are a smaller store, and we have a lot of competition," he told WH. "We have tried to toot our horn on all of our produce, which is 100% organic."

Although it cost nearly $2,500 when he applied for certification more than a year ago, Gerner said it created an extra layer of market protection and fostered consumer confidence in the products he offered. "It makes [them] feel better to know that we are abiding by the letter of the law," he said.

While there are marketing advantages, Mark Griffin, vice president of Lisa's Central Market in Truckee, Calif., said the decision to be certified by CCOF was not a simple marketing ploy.

"It is a way to build trust with the consumers," Griffin said. "It was also a message to our customers telling them they can trust the signage that we are a certified retailer."

Retailer certification was made possible by the implementation of the National Organic Program in October 2002. NOP mandates that farmers and processors of organic foods be inspected by a certification agency accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. The certification of stores is designed to assure consumers that produce, meats and other foods sold as organic -- free of conventional pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones -- are not mixed with non-organic foods when processed, shipped or stored. Inspectors also check whether storage areas are free of pesticides that taint organic foods.

Last year, Whole Foods Market, the Austin, Texas-based chain of organic food stores, became the first chain to get certification by QAI for all of its 140 stores. The cost was estimated to be between $1,000 and $2,000 per store.

This spring, Lunds and Byerly's, which operates 20 stores in the Minneapolis area, announced that QAI certified the produce departments in every store. Certification, accompanied by an expansion of the organic produce section to 100 fruits and vegetables, provided the regional chain with a bump in sales of between 3% and 5%, according to Bea James, corporate whole health manager. Lunds is considering expanding its certification to other departments when it renews its certification next year, she said.