WASHINGTON (FNS) -- There is renewed debate over several aspects of the revised U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed national organic standards. Specifically, some are criticizing the lack of guidance in the second draft as it pertains to store-level activities, and whether retailers should be certified to sell organic foods.
Although the new proposal requires certification for most organic growers, manufacturers and processors, it exempts retailers who do no on-site processing, and handlers with annual organic sales of less than $5,000. Retailers are considered handlers when they create and process their own product.
The new rule allows a supermarket deli to make an egg salad mix, for instance, and label their product "Made With Organic Eggs." But retailers that create the egg salad mix at their commissary and distribute it to all their stores cannot label the product as "certified organic" or use the USDA organic seal, unless the retailer's facility is certified.
This grey area has resulted in a new call to simplify the regulations as they pertain to supermarkets. Some organizations want all retailers that sell organics to follow the same rules, and assure customers that the product is indeed organic, from farm to consumer.
"Retailers are the gatekeepers. As consumers become savvy [about organics], they are going to say, 'Wait a minute, what happened to the retailers?"' said Cheryl Hughes, owner of The Whole Wheatery, a Lancaster, Calif. retail store. Hughes headed up a retail committee of the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., which developed Good Organic Retailing Practices. The guidelines have yet to be adopted by OTA.
Hughes hoped that the national organic rule would include requirements similar to the voluntary GORP guidelines, which provide suggestions on how to handle and store organics, as well as in-store pest control and other issues. However, the USDA received complaints from retailers and others who were concerned that retail certification would be difficult and costly, so it exempted most retailers, according to Hughes.
The subject was addressed repeatedly as the new guidelines were debated. In testimony submitted to the National Organic Standards Board, Brad Smith, merchandising manager for Community Food Co-Op, Bellingham, Wash., stated that voluntary guidelines are the best option, arguing that mandatory rules would add costs to consumers. If certification is required, it should enforced by the industry, not the government, he added.
"I expect organizations such as OTA will assemble examples of handling plans for retailers, making compliance an easy process," Smith wrote to the NOSB last year.
Boulder, Colo.-based natural foods retailer Wild Oats Markets told the NOSB that organic retailers should be registered with each state, but should not have to obtain certification. The next best option would be voluntary handling guidelines, according to Freya R. Brier, vice president-legal, Wild Oats.
On the opposite side, rival Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, has long advocated mandated organic certification for all retailers that carry organics. The chain's Texas stores are certified, as are hundreds of others in the state, because Texas requires organic certification for retailers.
Retailers who are certified to carry organic produce may increase their credibility with organic consumers, according to Edmund La Macchia, national produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market.
Hughes of The Whole Wheatery said the typical premium of organic over conventional is more justified when a retailer is certified. "They're adhering to higher standards and are able to support some of the pricing increases," she said.
But, despite some retailers' push for mandatory certification, industry observers acknowledged the issue, like the rules themselves, may not be decided for years.