Going Above and Beyond on Organic Certification

Big news: We just announced opens in a new tab that our 273 U.S. stores have been certified organic by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). Those of you who've been paying attention know that we've been a certified organic retailer since 2003 - a voluntary certification that's not required by the USDA. So what's the big deal now? Well, last November, the USDA told us that it was about to get much harder to be a certified retailer. Rather than walk away from certification altogether, we opted to go down the much more difficult road of getting each of our stores individually certified. The USDA was right: it was much harder. But we did what it took and made it happen. That's the news.

Here's a bit of context. When USDA's National Organic Standards went into effect in 2002, they defined organic in great detail, down to the specific substances that could be used, and required that everyone who handles organic food - growers, ranchers, processors, etc. - be certified by a USDA-approved third party organic certifier. Everyone, that is, except retailers. Huh? Yes, the whole supply chain for organic products must be certified, with the tiny exceptions of retailers and restaurants. These exceptions were made because they thought it would have been prohibitively difficult and expensive for all the retailers that carried unprotected organic food to get certified (by "unprotected" I mean unpackaged, like produce, meat, bulk grocery, etc.). So the USDA told retailers that they still had to follow the rules, but they wouldn't have to be certified. And we told the USDA something to the effect of "So you think it's too hard for retailers to get certified? We'd like to respectfully prove you wrong."


And we did. In 2003, Whole Food Market became the first national certified organic retailer, joining a few other small retailers that didn't have national scope. Since we were certified as a "group," our certifier inspected a representative sampling of our stores along with our overall company policies and systems for monitoring compliance. This is the same group process used for farm collectives where many small farms are grouping their product together. In November 2008, the USDA told retailers that they could no longer be certified as groups, and that each individual store would have to be inspected. While this was more expensive and labor intensive, we signed up all of our stores for inspection because we believe the integrity it brings the "organic" label is so important.

As part of the transition in the certifying process, we chose to work with California Certified Organic Farmers opens in a new tab (CCOF) as our certifier. They have been certifying organic farms and producers since 1973 and act as both a certifying agent and a non-profit advocacy group for organics. The people we work with at CCOF are visionary leaders in organics, and they truly share our view that the organic label should be meaningful and used with integrity.

So, are you wondering exactly what these inspectors do in our stores? They are looking at our practices that involve unpackaged organic products. Obviously, you don't need to do much to make sure a box of organic cereal stays organic. But we do have a lot to do when it comes to produce, bulk, meat, bakeries, cheese and even some salad bars. Here are just a few examples:

  • The rules don't allow "commingling" or touching between organic and non-organic foods. Throughout the stores, we go to great lengths to ensure that organic and conventional never touch.

  • When sanitizing a surface that touches food - knives, cutting boards, displays, bins - we're required to completely remove any sanitizer residue, and our team members keep written logs showing that they've removed cleaner and sanitizer from food contact surfaces.

  • Whether it's from a small local grower or a larger farm in another state, our organic produce has to come from certified organic growers. CCOF makes sure we have current certification documentation for any unpackaged products we're handling and selling.

  • Every team member who handles organic food needs to understand what the standard requires, so we've designed training programs to help. (These include a sing-along video about sanitation practices, and a video game called "The Organic Avengers," with villains named "The Contaminator" and "The Commingler." I am not joking; just ask any team member!) The certifier verifies that our teams are well-trained and have the knowledge they need to uphold the standard.

Again, I just want to reiterate that this program is not required by the USDA, and few other retailers go to the effort to become certified. Our stores are certified organic to give our customers more trust in the organic label. For us, it's important for you to know that everyone who handles your organic food has been certified - instead of everyone but the retailer.

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