Certain supermarkets have taken the extra step of getting entire stores or certain departments certified organic. For larger chains, the time and expense of pursuing the designation has been mitigated by a provision in the National Organic Program that allows retailers to certify any number of stores using a single compliance document. Success is dependent on the diligence of each unit to faithfully adhere to the rules in between inspections.
Citing instances of abuse, mostly on the supplier end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been pushing for individual site certification. The National Organic Standards Board, which suggests policy for the NOP, has been asked to review the situation and consider tightening the requirements. Joe Smillie, a board member and chair of the organization's compliance, accreditation and certification committee, supports the current plan because it has allowed retailers to commit to the organic ideal by putting best practices into place at store level to protect organic integrity.
“You don't want to make this cost-prohibitive. Retailer certification is voluntary,” he said. “They don't have to be certified. You want to bring them into the loop, and that's an excellent idea.”
The proposed changes — to be considered at this week's meeting of the full National Organics Standards Board — were written to satisfy the USDA's concerns, without gutting the incentive to become certified. They clarify “the distinction between the initial and annual inspections,” as well as compel certification candidates to develop “robust internal control systems” that would reduce or eliminate the need for direct observation of each unit, site or facility during annual follow-ups.
Smillie noted that the recommendations, if approved, will likely have little impact on retail operations, since supermarkets are already subject to stringent record-keeping requirements and are heavily regulated on other issues. Also, the retail environment seems less prone to negligence or fraud, since stores are closer to the consumer and operate much more openly than a remote farm or a secure manufacturing plant; in short, there are more eyes watching the goings-on on a daily basis, he said.
Interest in retail certification not only continues to be strong, it's also moving in new directions. A&P's Food Emporium banner announced Nov. 8 it was the first major supermarket operator to become certified to handle and cut organic beef in its full-service meat departments. The chain operates 16 stores, located primarily in New York's Manhattan.
“This is just the beginning of a positive new trend for our industry,” said Scott Lively, founder of Dakota Beef, the organic meat company that worked with Food Emporium to get the departments certified. Without the designation, the chain was limited to selling pre-wrapped packages of organic beef.
“We expect to announce several other major retailers who are following The Food Emporium's lead with certified organic meat counters,” Lively added.