Organic Matters

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

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."

"Wholesalers and retailers are finally being held as accountable as the farmers," says Edward Brown, who founded one of the country's first certified organic produce warehouses, Co-op Partners in St. Paul. "We saw this coming almost ten years ago, when a national standards program was first discussed. It is inspired by the successful programs in Sweden." In that country, a shopper can punch in a code and pull up photos of the farmer, animals, and crops, and read about the farm's vision and methods.

Under the new rules, at both the retail and wholesale level, commingling of organic and conventional will never be allowed. The Wedge already has separate areas for handling organic produce and products as well as for food preparation (cutting, butchering, sorting, wrapping, and deli). Bulk items must be kept separate. And the co-op may use only approved cleaning products, packaging materials, and containers.

Although the Wedge is becoming a certified organic retailer, it still carries some conventionally produced items. "We're evaluating what to stock, especially in the bulk area," says Elizabeth Archerd, the co-op's membership services director. "We may drop some of the conventional items because accounting for and keeping them separate is not worth the effort."

Mainstream grocery stores and chains, even if they are not seeking certification, must be far more vigilant in keeping conventional and organic produce separate. "We are looking at how we receive and store organic produce and products," says Debbie Leland, category manager for natural and specialty foods for Kowalski's Markets. "We'll do a better job of identifying organic items and of helping people understand exactly what the standards mean. People want to know more about their food, and we distribute a lot of educational materials. There's a real demand for organic and a real need for information."

There are plenty of incentives for mainstream grocers to find ways to meet the standards so they can continue to sell organic foods. The organic movement is the only financially healthy segment in the $400 billion grocery industry; it has grown at the rate of 20 percent a year for the past 20 years, maturing into an $8 billion market. General Mills, parent of Planet Foods (which owns Muir Glen tomatoes and Cascadian Farm frozen organic entrées), and J.M. Smucker, parent to After the Fall and RW Knudsen Family organic juices, are among the multinational corporations bolstering bottom lines with organic sales. (After all, how many variations of Fruit Loops can a shelf bear?)

How does the ruling affect what Michael Pollan (author and New York Times correspondent) has aptly dubbed the "organic industrial complex"? When by law, an Oreo can be judged as "organic" as my beloved tomatoes, what's going to happen to the guy who grows them?

"The ruling doesn't really change anything," says Roots & Fruits' Meyers. "The big guys were going to jump into the ring anyway because of the business opportunities. This law prevents them from doing so at unacceptable levels. The smaller organic farmers have been filing papers and paying certification fees for years. For them, this isn't new."

Co-op Partners' Brown isn't so sanguine. "Overproduction is our biggest concern," he says. "Large firms will pressure farmers to grow vast quantities for the lowest price, just as the conventional farms now do. I call it the 'Wal-Martization' of agriculture. Organic prices have been dropping as production increases. Bulk organic mixed greens are now about half their price from several years ago. And we're in stiff international competition: Chinese firms are waiting to flood us with cheap organic juice; Mexican farmers will work for six bucks a day. How can American farmers compete when the costs for labor, land, and water are so much higher than those of less socially responsible countries? There is a push to create an 'organic plus' designation so that ethical farmers who pay fair wages can differentiate themselves."

Take the growers in Marin County, California. Working with that state's Agricultural Trade Commissioner, they are looking to certify farmers who practice rigorous conservation, hire fairly, and pay farm workers living wages. The Marin Organic label will emphasize growers' commitment not only to organic farming but also to community values.

Locally, the same concerns are under discussion. "The process is intensifying the relationship with our farmers, especially those who cultivate heirloom varieties, hand-pick produce, rotate crops, and pay their workers fairly," says the Wedge's Anderson. "We want to help them educate shoppers about the value they add to our food and the benefits to the environment and our community. Consumers who do their own research will become involved in the process and make their own decisions."  

"We want shoppers to understand their choices and know what they're paying for when they are faced with apples from Argentina, Washington, or from the North Shore," says Brown. "Minnesota is leading the country in providing bridge financing for farmers transitioning to organic."

"It's critical that as a small wholesaler, I buy from small farmers," adds Meyers. "It's not always easy or cost-effective. I may have several different trucks going different directions, backing down winding dirt roads. I'd save time and money going to one or two big farms for everything. But this is important and will keep us alive in the end."

After all, he continues, "in Minnesota, most of us have some connection to the land and most of us know how good fresh food should be, and that's key. It's our responsibility to remember flavor. Sure, big California farms are starting to grow organic Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. They will be cheaper than the ones you like, but they won't taste the same."


Most Twin Cities Natural Foods Stores are seeking "organic retailer" certification, and many grocers are considering applying.

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The Wedge Community Co-op

2105 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55405


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