Whose Sustainable Standard Wins?

Ever get the feeling this produce business is a track and field meet, and every time you think you’ve finally cleared the last hurdle, you see a new one added in the distance?

Earlier this year, the Leonardo Academy Inc., who claim to be “The Sustainability Experts” — not to be confused with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Ag at Iowa State University, which was recently defunded — announced they had signed an agreement with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to accredit certifiers for ANSI/LEO-4000, which is the American National Standard for Sustainable Agriculture.

The goal is to test and certify auditors. It’s surprising to learn that this Leonardo group created national standards for all sustainable ag. After all, we already have The Sustainability Consortium and The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which is developing standards using scientifically based metrics.

If the Leonardo Academy standards are to be the standards for the industry, we should take a look at what’s involved. Unfortunately, in order to learn what those sustainability standards are, one has to pay a certifier’s application fee to access the manuals.

It’s tough to meet standards if you can’t read the rules.

Meanwhile, Retailers Are One-Upping Each Other

A couple of years ago, both Walmart and Whole Foods had adopted sustainability as the next attribute that they hoped would set their produce departments (as well as the rest of the store) ahead of the competition. To those ends, they were setting new rules by which their suppliers would have to comply.

While Walmart joined The Sustainability Consortium and is using that set of industry-developed standards, Whole Foods’ Responsibly Grown program is their home-grown vision of sustainability.

Now that Amazon is in the process of purchasing Whole Foods (which will create another set of rules for growers/shippers to play by), ‘sustainability,’ whether defined by Amazon/Whole Foods, Walmart, or the Leopold Academy, will likely require another certification audit.

In the meantime, while the dust is not even beginning to settle around food safety hurdles, several retailers have been working on new directives to allow them to stand out from the crowd. Walmart has been pushing traceability to the forefront, hoping that one day a fruit or vegetable could be tracked from the consumer all the way to the field in which it was grown with the push of a computer key or a scan of a barcode.

How We Got Here

It’s worth understanding a little history here.

The first salvo was fired in the late 1980s when the Ralph’s supermarket chain in California adopted the NutriClean certification program to be able to claim their produce was inspected and certified to be pesticide free.

That initial hurdle was cleared, with much industry protest and clarification from growers supplying competing chains that it was not a legitimate claim. No longer providing a competitive advantage, pesticide-free certification faded in importance. At the same time, increasing reports linking fresh produce to foodborne illnesses led to a new set of hurdles.

Over the past 20 years, there have been great advances in improving production, monitoring, handling, and certification systems in order to minimize the chances for contaminating fresh produce from field to fork. Yet, it still remains subject to a system lacking a uniform set of standards to level the playing field.

While implementation of the federal rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act should set a standard base level, and most retailers accept the ‘harmonized’ audit, several of the bigger players still require a different audit or have added an extra set of questions to meet their specific criteria.

Ultimately, It’s About Attracting Consumers

With the quality of the produce department often cited as the number one reason for selecting and continuing to shop at a particular retail grocery store, it is no wonder that a game of fruit and veggie one-upmanship has been playing out among grocers.

What started as simply having the freshest, cleanest, or greatest variety of produce in the section, has turned into a contest to see who can add another hurdle or raise the bar to ever higher standards.

You might be grumbling that the standards required by retailers may be superficial, unobtainable, or highly subjective. You might be asking, “Who’s paying for these new audits?” However, if you want to play the game and sell to these merchants, you have to play by the rules — their rules! And we all know that other marketing adage: The customer is always right!

Richard VanVranken specializes in small farms, farm marketing, and helping growers find a market for non-traditional crops. He is also Professor and County Extension Department Head of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County in New Jersey.

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5 comments on “Whose Sustainable Standard Wins?

  1. Great summary and good questions! Ultimately it would be better if this sort of standard was driven from the grower side and by the science. As long as there are players trying to make this a competitive axis or an unfunded mandate it won’t end up serving the interests of either the consumers or the environment

  2. Great to see this article and important considerations about sustainable agriculture standards.

    I’d like to point out that anyone can view the full ANSI/LEO-4000 standard for free by sending a simple request to [email protected]. This information is available on Leonardo Academy’s website: http://leonardoacademy.org/services/standards/agstandard.html.

    The pilot accreditation program currently being conducted in partnership with ANSI aims to accredit third party certifiers as well as bring producers through the certification process. It’s also worth noting that the ANSI/LEO partnership is nothing new, as Leonardo Academy has been an accredited standards developer for many years.

    ANSI/LEO-4000 distinguishes itself through a few key traits: it measures sustainability comprehensively, it is non-proprietary, and it will have multiple third-party certifiers. As such, it aims to satisfy a different purpose in the market than proprietary single user, single provider, or single crop standards.

    1. Thanks for clarifying the availability of the standards via the email request. I’ll try that route. However, the website link goes to the same page where I have to purchase a copy that was found while researching for this article.

      As for “measur[ing] sustainability comprehensively, it is non-proprietary, and it will have multiple third-party certifiers. As such, it aims to satisfy a different purpose in the market…”, the questions I posed were what makes this/your definition of sustainability better than any other, and what purpose does any certification program have other than to set one’s products apart from another’s in the market? We’ve already seen in the development of certification programs and standards for produce food safety over the past 15 years that no farmers are going to spend the money or time getting (another) third-party audit (and there are already many multiples of third-party certifiers in that realm) unless it’s mandated by their buyers or by regulation. If the retailers start demanding their produce growers be certified sustainable (and I hope they will carefully consider what they’re asking for before jumping on that bandwagon!), will they be using the ANSI/Leo-4000 standard, one from another organization, or their own?

  3. Having served on advisory group that led to Walmart’s sustainable ag initiative, as well as WB representative to WTO SPS Committed, I can say with certainty that evolution of private standards-including but not limited to sustainability–has been much more complex than this article implies. What about Sustainable Ag Initiative? whole farm assurance of Global Gap? organic standards, which have been mix of public and private globally? industry or category specific standards? food safety standards like Dutch HACCP, BRC, SQF, ISO, etc? fair trade standards? Benchmarking under GFSI? Overlap in scope, competition, cost of audits, rise and fall, certification, accreditation are all part of the story. As well as fact that much of it was industry-driven, retailer-driven, or standards-scheme driven, not actually driven by manifest consumer demand. Remember slogans like “one auditor through the gate”, “once accepted, accepted everywhere? This topic deserves more comprehensive and in-depth coverage.

    1. We’re on the same page, but there’s only so much detail one can include in a short column. Too simplistic maybe, but the intent was to educate, alert and prompt a discussion (that seemed to work!) over the frustration growers are feeling over the potential for yet another audit demanded by their buyers (yes, industry/retailer driven rather than consumer driven). I nixed the cliche ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ that I had first put down on paper. That said, we’re exploring how we might delve into this topic deeper. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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