By the time you read this, fifteen years of pushing for a federal organic law will have come to fruition when the USDA's Final Rule on Organics went into effect on October 21, 2002. While most of the new Rule simply puts federal muscle behind the organic certification process as it's existed for years, one new wrinkle was added.
After a year's worth of preparation, the Wedge has the distinction of being the first certified organic grocery store in Minnesota, along with the first certified meat department and juice bar in America.
But despite this distinction, and despite the Wedge's long-standing good relationship with organics, getting certified was no cakewalk. In fact, early on in the process, it seemed like certification might not happen at all.
Early last year, the Wedge hired me to study the new USDA Rule on Organics to see if certification was a good option for us. Theco-op sent me to Austin, Texas, to attend the first-ever organic trade show, and to take workshops on retail certification.
I was dubious, frankly. The Good Organic Retail Practices (GORP) Manual, the guide-book for steering stores through the maze of certification, seemed overcomplicated - an impossible set of hurdles over which most stores wouldn't be able to jump. It called for strict cleaning regimens, logs for recording cleaning tasks between handling of conventional and organic produce, resetting displays to prevent commingling and contamination of organic product. Why bother? Retail certification is all foot race and no trophy, I figured.
But at the trade show, Joyce Ford, one of The GORP Manual's authors, convinced me that whether the USDA intended it or not, -organic retail certification was built for co-ops because it was so difficult. Many hurdles, yes, but those hurdles would favor small, nimble stores with motivated workers over pon-der-ous corporate chains whose directives trickle down to disinterested employees.
In other words, retail certification was a strategic gift from the organic movement to its long time companions, the co-op groceries. After all, co-ops were thoroughly committed to the organic movement from its birth, and many consumers still identify organic food with shopping at co-ops. But at a time when Wal-Mart was becoming the biggest seller of organic food in the country, grocery co-ops were on the verge of being "left at the altar" if they didn't seize this powerful marketing tool.
I came back to the Wedge, very excited about retail certification.
When I came home from the trade show, I told our General Manager that I had seen the Light and that the Wedge had to seek certification or co-ops would lose the high ground in the marketing battle over organics. I think I convinced him (or scared him) with my disturbing passion for the task, and he decided the Wedge should try to become the first organically certified store in Minnesota.
Easier said than done. The Wedge is quite big by co-op standards at 11,000 square feet in retail space and $20+ million a year in sales. Luckily the USDA Rule allows stores to seek certification department by department. I started writing the mandatory "handling plan" for those departments whose organic handling practices would be most self-evident: Produce, Meat, Cheese, Bakery, Juice Bar, and the pivotal Co-op Partners Warehouse, our wholesale program. The first three departments on this list sell products that are 100% organic, making the USDA's complex labeling rules a real breeze for us. The Juice Bar made 100% organic juices in dedicated "organic" juicers already, and the Bakery required a bit more work since it was really more of a processor of organic foods than a retailer, but in the end, the actual changes to our bakers' work days was minimal.
Co-op Partners Warehouse was a much greater challenge. As the Wedge's primary wholesaler, CPW is responsible for the "audit ability" of organic products coming into the Wedge and other co-ops. For example, in order to be certified, CPW started using a price gun to sticker every organic case that came through the loading dock with a purchase order number, so that organic product could be more simply tracked to their invoices - and thus, to their official organic certificates. At $4+ million in organic sales a year, that's a river of boxes and an ocean of stickers, but the CPW staff does this daily now.
It took nearly a year, but by this summer, we'd thoroughly divided all the displays in the Wedge's certifiable departments. We split the backstock between organic and conventional product, and designated certain cutting boards "organic" and certain knives "conventional." Once we were ready, we contacted an organic certifier for an application, Midwest Organic Services Association.
MOSA is responsible for the organic certification of many familiar organic farms - Harmony Valley, River Bend, Red Oaks, Avalanche Organics, and Featherstone Farms - so we figured the Wedge would be in good company. We sent MOSA our completed handling plan (three pounds of paper!) and by October, we'd set a date for our inspection.
If you want a laugh, shout, "you're being inspected" to a group of retail workers some time and watch them flinch in unison.
To those of us in the retail food world, "inspection" means "Health Department," and it fills us with panic. Organic inspection, however, was more like a lengthy conversation about the Wedge's organic handling plan, going over how we protect the integrity of organic product. The independent inspector (hired by MOSA) wanted to know if we'd thought of everything, how we'd handle certain unforeseeable variables, and whether or not our heart was "in the right place." Of course, he inspected our coolers, our invoices, and organic certificates for individual products, too, but more, the inspector wanted to see if we'd internalized the knowledge necessary to maintain our products' organic integrity.
Before the inspection, I was like a tightly coiled spring, I was so nervous. The Wedge, however, was calm, cool, and ready to go.
"Nothing but net," Diane Collins from MOSA said when she told us that the Wedge had received its certification - meaning, we passed! I'm proud to report that we were certified on October 15, 2002 - six days before the USDA Organic Rule became official.
This means that the Wedge is home to the first and only certified organic meat department in the U.S. We have the first and only certified organic Juice Bar nationwide, too, not to mention the first certified Cheese Department, Produce Department, and Warehouse in the state of Minnesota.
All credit goes to our staff. This group of workers was impressive already, without being certified, but they've proved they could easily jump the hurdles that organic certification put in front of them. The Wedge definitely wouldn't be the first certified store in Minnesota without them.
By the way, Oryana Co-op in Traverse City, Michigan has the distinction of being the first certified organic co-op in the country. At 4500 square feet and $3 million a year in sales, they proved that smaller co-ops would have an easy time with certification. Our hats off to them for leading the charge!
Nationwide, the Wedge has long been identified with organic food. But this isn't just about the Wedge. It's also about the cooperative movement as a whole.
Here in Minnesota, every member of Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops is looking into certification for at least one of their departments, and many store-members of Northwest Cooper-a-tive Grocers in Washington are pursuing certification as well. Soon, "organic stores" will be just as important to organic shoppers as organic food from organic farms. And when we travel around the country, now we'll be able to find trustworthy groceries that have gone the extra mile by becoming organically certified.
This is a watershed moment in the growth of the organic movement. As more co-ops accept the challenge of retail certification, stepping forward to complete the chain of certified organic integrity between farmer and shopper, co-ops will reassert themselves as the face of the organic industry. In a sense, we'll renew the decades-old marriage vows between co-ops and organics.