Kroger is to roll out its "Naturally Preferred" brand across the US. The FDA's introduction of the National Organic Program (NOP) has somewhat pushed retailers and manufacturers into avoiding the 'organic' claim altogether, due to an onerous and expensive certification process. Kroger's introduction of an entire "natural and organic product range" at an "affordable" price might well lead others to sidestep the NOP regulations.

Stunned and still reeling from the recently introduced National Organic Program (NOP), the organic industry has been struggling with how to provide organic products that satisfy government regulations at a price that suits the consumer, and that turn a profit.

The NOP, which came into effect in October 2002, introduced far-reaching requirements for those wishing to claim their products as technically 'organic'. The new regulations govern production and handling of ingredients from the fields to the shelves, and require specific product certification and record-keeping activities from all involved in the supply chain. The aim was to provide a somewhat uniform meaning to the claim that a product is 'organic'.

The idea behind standardising organic products was sound and a positive step for consumers, but the intricate certification process has meant a shortage in the supply of organic ingredients. Since only about 0.3% of US cropland and 0.2% of all US pastures were certified organic in 2001, many farmers have chosen to re-classify their products as "natural" or "antibiotic-free", rather than going through the costly and lengthy process of becoming certified.

The new range offered by Kroger consists of approximately 140 items, ranging from baby food to pastas, cereal, snacks, milk and soy items. The products in the "Naturally Preferred" range are priced to be particularly competitive with respect to national brands.

Whether all of the 140 items will consistently qualify for the NOP organic stamp remains to be seen. In the meantime, the campaign might instead add to consumer confusion by encouraging the misperception that products labelled with the terms "natural" and "organic" are equivalent. As such, other companies are likely to follow suit in attempts to remain competitively priced, ultimately casting aside both the spirit and regulations of the NOP.

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