NEW ORLEANS -- On the eve of the implementation of the new organic regulations, speakers at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2002 emphasized that retailers and suppliers should look upon the changes as a plus.
More sales of organics can be expected because the regulations will bolster customers' confidence that what's called organic is really organic, and the rules will -- just by calling attention to organic products -- increase the number of crossover customers, the experts said. In addition, they pointed out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture regards these "final" regulations as a work in progress so retailers shouldn't fear aggressive enforcement right now.
"Remember that it was the industry itself that asked to be regulated. We've been waiting for this for years," said Tonya Antle, vice president of organic sales, Natural Selection Foods, a San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based supplier of organic produce and salad mixes.
Antle told retailers that the onus lies with the grower/shipper to get certified by a USDA-approved agency, and advised retailers to go to a certification agency and ask for a list of certified grower/shippers. Chances are that the suppliers they've already been dealing with will have become certified by the deadline date, she said.
Retailers do, however, need to have the paperwork in hand that shows their suppliers are certified.
"If you're a retailer of both organic and non-organic, your supplier should help you. And the Organic Trade Association has come out with guidelines to make sure you're a good steward of the product. You will need to be able to show that you have a business plan for organics," Antle said.
"The organic police are not going to be in your store on Oct. 22. In fact, there's been no money allocated to enforcement," she added, suggesting retailers take a proactive stance and ask their state department of agriculture to work with them on compliance. That particularly would a good move because the USDA will probably partner with state agencies for enforcement.
On the subject of paperwork, another panelist, Leslie Krasny, an attorney from Keller and Heckman LLP, whose expertise is in government regulations and their interpretation, assured retailers that if their record-keeping is good, an unintentional violation would not be punished.
Krasny went on to point out that there's much still to be ironed out -- such as what constitutes "processing."
"Does it include mixing, chilling, cutting? While under a literal interpretation 'processing' would include putting a product in a clamshell, the precise meaning hasn't been determined. It is clear that commingling is not allowed," she said, emphasizing that unpackaged organic product must not touch non-organic product.
Most of what retailers must concern themselves is what happens at store-level -- product handling, displays and labeling -- but Antle pointed out that that doesn't necessarily mean that organics must be displayed in a different location.
"Since we may have a group of consumers we've never had before, signage needs to be bold to distinguish organic products from non-organic, and unpackaged items must be separated but that can be done with lucite strips or putting product in bowls. The core organic shopper will go to an organic display, but the borderline shopper won't. So don't relegate organics to a separate display [potential buyers] won't find," she said.