As the commissary benefit begins to undergo fundamental changes, the director of the Defense Commissary Agency has announced his retirement.

Joseph H. Jeu said Thursday that he will step down June 3 after nearly 40 years of federal service, which began in 1978 as a commissary specialist with the U.S. Army Troop Support Agency's European Region. He also worked for the Marine Corps and the General Services Administration.

Jeu oversees more than 15,000 federal workers at DeCA, which operates 238 commissaries in 13 countries.

"Jeu has guided the agency through an enormous and challenging transformation; set an aggressive strategic direction to ensure the relevance of the commissary benefit for generations to come and provided direction and oversight for the modernization of DeCA's supply chain management systems," officials stated in a news release announcing the move.  

In the same release, Jeu said the transformation in question "is well on its way and the right people are in place to see it through. It's time for me to leave it in their capable hands."

Customers will start to see some of the results of that transformation within the next few months — mainly in the way groceries are priced. The commissary system will move from a system of selling groceries priced "at cost" from the supplier to a system of "variable pricing." Variable pricing allows DeCA to mark up the prices on some items in order to make money to pay for some of the commissary system’s operations.

DeCA is also implementing a private label program, also known as store brands, which will start appearing on commissary shelves in May. These products are generally cheaper than national brands, and officials expect to be able to mark up the price to some degree, also to make money.

This marks a distinct departure from a commissary benefit that's about 150 years old, where groceries have been sold at cost from the supplier. Customers pay an extra 1 percent of a product's cost to cover spoilage and loss, and a 5 percent surcharge, which goes to pay for renovations and construction of commissaries. 

Taxpayer dollars — about $1.4 billion a year — pay for the operation of the stores. But for several years, the commissary system has been under increasing pressure from defense officials to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars used for commissary operations, so Congress has changed the law that required commissaries to sell groceries at cost.

"We do thank Mr. Jeu for his long years of service, but he's leaving at a critical time for the commissary benefit, military families, DeCA employees, and the system itself," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.

"None of the changes mandated by either Congress or DoD will be fully completed when he leaves. …. DeCA not only needs to focus over the long term on all these changes, but also to double down on basic grocery store management to include the perennial issues of quality control of produce and meat in too many locations."

"Getting the right successor will be important," Raezer said. "To us, the first criteria would be that a new DeCA director understands he or she is administering a critical personnel benefit for people who are serving or have served this country and the commissaries should provide the savings and customer experience that reflect the service and sacrifice of their patrons.

"This isn't just another grocery store chain."

Information was not available from defense officials about the plans for replacing Jeu – or if they plan to replace him. Last year, defense officials began evaluating informational outlines from various entities who offered ideas for privatizing commissaries. It’s not clear where that process stands.

Lawmakers sent a message to defense officials late last year that they didn't believe senior commissary agency management is capable of carrying out  the commissary reforms. Congressional negotiators expressed concerns that senior management "may lack the necessary talent and skills to transform the commissary system into an efficient, high-performing purveyor of grocery products and services," according to the explanatory statement with Congress’ annual defense spending bill.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at .