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 or 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
- 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.