Retailers are preparing for increased demand for organic groceries and frozen foods now that the long-awaited proposed national organics regulations have been released.
J.B. Pratt, president of Pratt Foods, Shawnee, Okla., which has aggressively promoted organic foods, expects business to boom, even before the final regulations are passed or a national certification seal appears on grocery products.
"The main thing is 'top-of-mindness,' " he said. "It's on the front page of the newspaper, and it will drive organics in the supermarket."
He also predicted the new rule will "effectively bring organics into the mainstream," and more retailers will integrate them with conventional selections.
The proposed standards, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dec. 15, are undergoing a 90-day comment period. The final version is expected to be ready in time for the spring 1999 crop.
Some retailers have already taken a strong stand against three controversial issues that remain undecided: allowing the use of irradiation, genetic modification of organisms (such as seeds) and the use of sludge as fertilizer. As reported, these three procedures could be included in the final rules, depending on responses in the comment period.
Pratt feels that, from a business standpoint, it would be a mistake to allow the three controversial procedures into the final rule.
"Organics has grown so rapidly is because consumers know certain things are not allowed. It would not be good for the growth of the industry to dilute the meaning of organic.
"That is not saying that these procedures don't belong in certain areas of the food system, but we need to keep choices," he added.
Two of the nation's largest natural-food supermarket chains, Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, and Wild Oats, have taken a strong stand against including irradiation, sludge and GMOs in the final rule. However, like most others in the industry, they generally applaud the proposed rule.
Since the proposal was released, retailers have been working diligently to educate their consumers about what the regulations mean. David Cook, a grocery specialist at one of the Huckleberry's, Spokane, Wash., owned by Rosauers Supermarkets, also in Spokane, was in the process of putting together the store's January newsletter when SN spoke with him last week. The newsletter will include information on the proposed rule.
Tracy Wiese, director of communications at Lunds Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., the parent of Lunds and Byerly's, said information on the proposed rule will appear in February's consumer newsletter and will be given by word-of-mouth at the store level.
"Once people get used to the seal and what it means, that will help build awareness of organics, and that translates into sales," she continued.
So far, Lunds has not taken a position on the controversial aspects of the proposed rule, according to Wiese.
Henry's Marketplace, La Mesa, Calif., is evaluating its position with regard to the controversial radiation, sludge and GMOs, said Patti Milligan, corporate nutritionist.
Consumers have been lashing out on the three controversial issues that remain undecided in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed organics standards, according to comments posted on the USDA's web site.
"Please don't let the big food companies dilute the current organic certification rules so they can muscle in on the big organic food market," a consumer from California wrote.
"It is irresponsible and unethical to allow anything to be termed organic that has been genetically altered, cloned or irradiated," another consumer wrote.