Courtney Mudge is the Organic Certification Manager for Whole Foods Market. She's a 5th generation Texan who grew up on a ranch in the Hill Country. When she's not coaching our stores on organic integrity, she's being crafty and searching for the perfect taco.When you hear the word “organic” what do you think of? If you’re at all familiar with organic farming, then you probably know that a certified organic apple has to be grown according to certain standards – such as no toxic persistent pesticides. Makes sense. You might also know that certified organic beef comes from cows that eat certified organic feed and steer clear (no pun intended) of antibiotics and added growth hormones. All that makes sense too. So, when someone says “organic,” bucolic images of farms, orchards and pastures probably come to mind. Bustling urban grocery stores? Not so much.
Well, like those apples and that beef, Whole Foods Market® stores are certified organic. “Wait, what?” – you may ask – “A grocery store can be certified organic?” Yes, it can and we are.
Though, I admit it’s a little confusing, especially since not ALL the products in our stores are organic. Basically, our certification means that we ensure the organic integrity of the organic products we sell from the time they reach our stores until they are safely tucked into your shopping cart.
It’s similar to the organic certification for food processing plants. Hadn’t thought of that either? Well, that box of organic crackers you just bought is full of organic ingredients (insert bucolic images here) but what else makes those crackers organic? A lot, actually.
Certifiers accredited by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) evaluate the plans and production systems at facilities that process organic foods. Even though they are assessing different details than they are at an organic farm, the certifiers are still looking for the same basic compliance points:
Organic integrity of sources (verifying that organic ingredients are indeed organic)
Truth in labeling (making sure the food being produced is labeled accurately)
Prevention of contamination of any kind
Prevention of co-mingling (ensuring that non-organic ingredients don’t mix with organic ingredients)
Verification that cleaning and pest control procedures do not leave residues or compromise organic integrity
Those five points summarize pages and pages of detailed federal regulation. Every organic product you buy is required by law to meet those standards at both the farm and the processing facility.
But what happens when that organic product leaves the farm or processing facility and gets to the store? Since the USDA National Organic Program does not require an organic certification for retailers who sell organic products, many conventional stores handle organic products just like all the other products on their shelves. Whatever cleaning chemicals or pest control methods their local health department allows, they can use. Many retailers who do choose to be certified organic often only sell organics that are packaged or pre-packed to avoid some of the more difficult processes necessary to remain certified.
However, Whole Foods Market takes its organic certification and its commitment to organic integrity seriously and doesn’t shy away from the hard work. In 2002 when the National Organic Standards were enacted, Whole Foods Market leadership took Core Value #1 — selling the highest quality natural and organic products available — to heart and decided that every one of our stores would meet the same requirements as organic processing facilities and in 2003 Whole Foods Market became the first national certified organic retailer. While that may sound like a simple statement, it is a huge commitment.
Each year our certifier, CCOF, audits every one of our stores to the same rigorous standards as certified organic processing facilities. So, what exactly do 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:
Throughout the stores, we go to great lengths to ensure that organic and conventional products never touch; there’s no “co-mingling” here.
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.
It’s a lot of work, but we want to do it! Organic integrity is paramount here. Although our stores in Canada and the UK do not fall under the USDA National Organic Program, they are also certified organic and meet the specific guidelines for each of those countries.
Do you find it easy to locate “Certified Organic” products at your local Whole Foods Market? Share your experience in the comments below!