Organic Matters

Ten years in the making, national organic standards are coming to a store near you

Kowalski's Markets
seven Twin Cities locations

Wedge Community Co-Op
2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis

Truth be told, I'd rather shop than garden or cook. No tomato will survive my straggly urban yard. And sniffing out a crusty baguette beats kneading myself into a lather any hot July day. So I have a tendency to dawdle amid produce aisles and farm market stalls, gleefully inefficient, spending precious time and money buying organic food. After all, who can dispute the value of a sun-ripe peach or advice from the farmer on the best olive oil to drizzle over his marble-sized tomatoes?

Barth Anderson is heading up organic certification for Minneapolis's Wedge Community Co-op
Tony Nelson
Barth Anderson is heading up organic certification for Minneapolis's Wedge Community Co-op

Location Info


The Wedge Community Co-op

2105 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55405

Category: Restaurant > Grocery

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

But the way I see it, my shopaholic tendencies are easily justifiable. Researchers are finally publishing data that confirms what most of us already know: Organic produce is more nutritious (with significantly higher amounts of such nutrients as vitamin C, calcium, and potassium) than its conventional counterparts; overuse of hormones and antibiotics impairs animals' resistance to disease and weakens our own reproductive and immune systems. Plus, organically grown produce tastes better because it's nurtured in rich, chemical-free soil, and, especially if it's local, because it is fresh. And organically raised meat and poultry are tastier because the animals eat grass and grain and mature naturally, without hormones and antibiotics.

And to say conventional food is cheaper and more accessible is to ignore its hidden costs: cleaning up leaky hog-manure lagoons; protecting monarch butterflies from genetically modified corn "drift"; combating mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease, and conducting food recalls. It's tough to defend conventional agriculture's use of cadmium, lead, and arsenic in fertilizers, and animal feed made from animals and manure. Farm chemicals and pesticides taint our food, run into our drinking water and rivers, and enter the air we all breathe. Can we really distinguish the health of the environment from that of the individual?

It's not hard to understand the rise in the number of consumers willing to track down and pay for organic food. But as its popularity has grown, it has become increasingly important that consumers are given exact definitions of what the organic label does and doesn't promise, as well as who gets to lay claim to it. Come October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will implement a number of National Organic Standards (NOS), defining what may and may not be labeled "Certified Organic." Ten contentious years in the making, the new standards create an arena in which the biodynamic shepherd and corporate vice president must play by the same rules. (States may have their own certification standards, which must at least conform to national ones. This means some states, like California, will have to toughen their laws. Minnesota's standards are already tougher than the new federal rules.)

Every link in our food chain--grower, producer, processor, wholesaler, retailer, and restaurant--may opt to apply for certification. Independent certification agencies will award the USDA organic seal based on inspection and intricate record keeping; the organization seeking certification pays the fees.

Far stricter than the initial standards proposed several years ago, the guidelines prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), ionizing radiation, and sewage-sludge fertilization. They do not address health claims, nor do they govern food additives or growing methods and are not to be confused with the term natural, which has it own USDA definition. The rules do not ensure flavor, healthfulness, or quality. Just because it is now USDA certified doesn't mean all organic food is the same. Some farmers and producers are more careful and conscientious than others, and the quality of their food reflects the extra steps they take.

Consumers who are already buying organic food will not notice much difference. The real value of the standards to shoppers like me is that they create a system through which I can now track the source of my food. I will have easy access to specific information about where a peach came from, who grew it, packed it, shipped and received it, stored and stacked it. I can find out who raised the cow, the size of the herd, whether it grazed in pasturelands or ate grain in a barn, and where and how it was slaughtered and ground into the burgers I'm throwing on my grill.

"Every certified link in the chain must maintain these detailed documents and create a secure audit trail," says Barth Anderson, the organic retail certification coordinator for the Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis. The Wedge will be the first certified organic retailer in the country and is already a model for stores across the nation. "Within the near future, a consumer will be able to go to a Wedge computer, punch in the case code listed at the point of sale, and pull up information about the product and its source," Anderson says. This applies to anything the Wedge carries that's labeled organic.

This sounds burdensome, but the people who will have to implement these detailed procedures are thrilled. "The ruling will force us to streamline information," explains Everett Meyers, organic produce buyer for the Twin Cities organic produce distributor Roots & Fruits. "And this will help us analyze what's going on, how we can do it better."

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