On October 21, 2002 the USDA's Organic Rule went into effect. While most of the new Rule simply put federal muscle behind the organic certification process as it's existed for the last several decades, one new wrinkle was added.
Organic certification for stores.
After months of preparation, The Wedge had the distinction of being the first certified organic grocery store, and several of its departments are the first to be certified in the country. We did this a week before the USDA rule went into effect.
Despite The Wedge's long-standing commitment to selling organic food, getting certified was no cakewalk. Early on in the process, certainly, it seemed like certification might not happen at all.
Early in 2001, The Wedge hired me to study the new USDA Rule on Organics to see if certification was a good option for us. The co-op sent me to Austin, Texas, to attend the first-ever organic trade show, where workshops discussing retail certification were taking place.
I was dubious about certification for grocery stores. 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. A real hassle. Retail certification is all foot race and no trophy, I figured at first.
But over tacos at Las Manitas Cafe in Austin, 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 ponderous 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," co-op groceries. Our stores, after all, had pushed the organic movement's principals from the very beginning, and many people still identify organic food with co-ops. At a time when Wal-Mart was becoming the biggest seller of organic food in the country, I couldn't help but be enthused by the powerful potential of this marketing tool for the Wedge and co-ops across the country.
I came home, very excited about retail certification.
Building a Certified Store
When I came back to the Wedge from the organic 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, as I soon discovered. The Wedge is very 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, so 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 100% organic product, 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 "auditability" 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 divided 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 quite a few local organic farmers - Harmony Valley, River Bend, Red Oaks, Avalanche Organics, and Featherstone Farms - so we figured the Wedge would be in good company. We sent them our completed handling plan (three pounds of paper!) and in August MOSA set a date for our inspection in October.
Under the Magnifying Glass
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 hand, I was like a tightly coiled spring, I was so nervous. After the inspection, I was pretty confident we'd eventually get our certification.
And the Winner is...
The co-op received its organic certification on October 15, 2002, 6 days before the USDA Rule on Organics officially went into effect.
This means that the Wedge is home to the first certified organic meat department in the country. We have the first certified organic Juice Bar nationwide, too, as well as the first certified Cheese Department, Produce Department, Health and Bodycare Department, Grocery Department, and Warehouse in the state of Minnesota.
All credit goes to our staff. They were already an impressive group of workers 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!
Here in Minnesota, Mississippi Market is also certified organic and every member of Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops is looking into certification for at least one of their departments. Many store-members of Northwest Cooperative Grocers in Washington are pursuing certification as well. Soon, when you travel around the country, you'll be able to find organic stores that you can trust by seeking out co-ops that have gone the extra mile by seeking certification.
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, effectively renewing the decades-old "marriage vows" between co-ops and organics.