RETAILER JOINS CUT-FLOWER CERTIFICATION PROGRAM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Whole Foods Market has joined with top growers and distributors to create a standardized cut-flower certification program addressing social and environmental issues that have long plagued the cut-floral industry, SN has learned.The program, developed by Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif., over the last few months, is about to be launched under the name Veriflora.The

AUSTIN, Texas -- Whole Foods Market has joined with top growers and distributors to create a standardized cut-flower certification program addressing social and environmental issues that have long plagued the cut-floral industry, SN has learned.

The program, developed by Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif., over the last few months, is about to be launched under the name Veriflora.

The SCS program will bring together under one umbrella floral products that currently have "green label" certification from other agencies -- some in Europe and South America -- if they meet SCS standards, and products from additional growers audited by SCS.

"Industry members told us they wanted a program that's credible and that addresses socially and environmentally responsible criteria, one that has an auditing component and a chain-of-custody component. It will be similar to Nutriclean in that a consumer can walk into a retailer and see signage about how the flowers were grown under criteria approved by Veriflora," said Jeff Stephens, SCS spokesman. Nutriclean is an SCS program that certifies produce as being free of chemicals.

Since there are growers presently meeting conditions required for Veriflora certification or need only make minor changes to qualify, an adequate supply of Veriflora-certified product will be available right away, and it will continue to grow, Stephens said.

Existing green-label programs are a mix -- some covering a whole spectrum of qualifications, others adhering to only minimal standards -- and there is none that resonates with the American consumer, Stephens explained.

Whole Foods has been carrying cut flowers with some of those green-label certifications. At the 150-unit chain's most recently opened store in New York, SN observed an associate telling customers what "green label" can mean. Among other things, he said, it indicates the growers of the flowers treat their workers well, pay them a fair wage, and give them benefits like health care and day-care centers. In addition, he said green-label growers are environmentally responsible.

The fact is, however, that until the advent of Veriflora, the lack of one standard certification has caused confusion, sources said.

"Consumers, concerned as they might be about the conditions under which flowers are grown, are not going to take the time to find out exactly what each different [certification] seal means. They'll buy a box of chocolates instead," said one industry source.

Every Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, stories hit the consumer press about how some flower growers in other countries exploit their workers and the environment.

"Horrible conditions do exist in some places, but by and large, growers are responsible citizens who want to do what's right for their workers and for the environment," said Ted Johnson, president, Fresh Blooms, a division of The Delaware Valley Floral Group, Sewell, N.J., the largest single-location cut-flower distributor in the country.

"Veriflora certification will reward them for doing what is good, and it will give retailers another way to show customers they care about these things," Johnson said. "When I was in Colombia looking at growing conditions, Whole Foods was there for the same reason. It's no surprise they're so involved. Ten years ago, they were on the front end of the organic movement. They were a trend leader then, and they are now."

Johnson and Gerald Prolman, founder/president of Organic Bouquet, Mill Valley, Calif., with Whole Foods, were among the first members on an advisory committee that has worked closely with SCS to develop Veriflora. Indeed, Johnson credited Prolman, who had been evaluating green-label best practices on his own, with getting the committee together. The group includes some of the largest growers.

"I knew Whole Foods was on the same track. I talked to them and Ted [Johnson] and others, and then I went to SCS," Prolman told SN.

With Veriflora's debut imminent, he has launched Forever Green Farms, a sister business to Organic Bouquet, that will wholesale Veriflora-certified cut flowers to retailers via the Internet.

The fact that Veriflora is an SCS program gives it particular credibility, sources told SN, because SCS has a 20-year track record of working effectively with supermarkets on other programs, including Nutriclean.