In a rule reversal, commissaries will soon be permitted to sell generic products thanks to a measure included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, expected to be approved by Congress before Christmas. 

The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) is currently barred by federal law from carrying products not available to civilian stores. That rule blocks them from carrying a generic, potentially less expensive "commissary" brand series of products, much like those sold as store brands by civilian grocers such as Walmart's "Great Value" brand.

But the new law lifts that prohibition. Instead DeCA may sell "any commercial item" regardless of whether or not it is identical to those carried by civilian grocers, the bill says.

The change could have big implications on prices at commissaries. By law commissaries must sell goods at cost. Carrying a generic brand with a private "commissary" label could come at a lower cost to both the stores and consumers.

DeCA officials declined to comment on the measure because the bill has not yet become law.

Producing a "DeCA" brand, however, could come with its own costs and barriers, such as creating the infrastructure to both produce that brand and stock store shelves -- something that is currently done primarily by manufacturer representatives.  Those challenges were not addressed in the bill. 

Commissaries already carry a "control" or knock-off brand for many products that offer a price lower than the typical name brand. A new advertising program launched by commissary officials this month highlights those products in stores by giving them special orange "best value" labels.

The suggestion to allow commissaries to carry generics was made during Senate on the bill in May. It was seen as one idea for offsetting the costs of slashing DeCA's budget by two-thirds over 10 years, a move proposed by the DoD as part of their budget request. 

That cut, however, was rejected by lawmakers. Instead, they granted the commissary system $1.2 billion to operate, a full $100 million more than what the Pentagon asked for, but still $100 million less than DeCA's previous operating budget.

Commissary officials declined to speculate on where they would find that $100 million in savings.

Instead of the drastic funding cut, the authorization act orders an independent study on how cuts and price changes at the commissary would impact patrons, particularly junior enlisted members and junior officers, as well as the store's ability to function. That report is due to Congress by September of next year, the bill says. 

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at Amy.Bushatz@military.com.