5. Buying organic

Q: What does "organic" mean?
A: The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a program in 2002 that regulates the way food must be produced to bear the organic label. According to the USDA standards:

  Organic food is produced with an emphasis on renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water.

  Organic food is produced without conventional pesticides, fertilizers that use synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, genetically engineered components or ionizing radiation.

  Organic meat, eggs and dairy items come from animals fed an organic diet and free of antibiotics and growth hormones.

  Organic food producers must be certified by a U.S.-approved inspector. So must companies that process organic foods.
Q: What do the labels mean?
A: The USDA regulates the use of the term "organic" on food labels and packages. It doesn't regulate the terms "natural" and "all natural," except for meat and poultry, so those are no guarantee that a product is organically produced. Here are the USDA's organic labels:

  100 percent organic: May only contain organically produced ingredients, with the exception of water and salt. These products can bear the green-and-white "USDA organic" seal.

  Organic: Must be made of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining 5 percent must come from a USDA list of items that are not available organically -- cornstarch and baking soda, for example. These products also can bear the green-and-white "USDA organic" seal:

  Made with organic ingredients: Must be made of at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients.
Q: Where can I find more information?
A: The USDA National Organic Program: www.ams.usda.gov/NOP
St. Petersburg Times

TROY -- Five years ago, Trudi Fornasiero of Shelby Township would spend all day scouring traditional grocery stores for organic products. If she did find them, the choices were few.

That's not the case anymore, as mainstream grocery stores -- among them Kroger, Farmer Jack and Meijer in Metro Detroit -- jump on the fast-moving organic bandwagon, responding to growing consumer demand for all things natural and chemical-free.

Large grocers are highlighting organic products in their weekly advertising circulars, giving organics more and better display space, and adding new products to keep customer interest strong. Three weeks ago, Meijer Inc. started selling its own brand of USDA-certified organic food, and last year Wal-Mart stocked all of its superstores with organic products.

"The amount of organic foods sold at Kroger has increased tenfold in the past five years," communications manager Dale Hollandsworth said. "It's the fastest-growing area in the store."

Sales of organic food have literally skyrocketed, jumping 15 percent to 20 percent each year since 1997. And "it's showing no signs of slowing down," said Bill Greer, spokesman of the Food Marketing Institute. "I think it's here to stay."

The challenge, he says, is for grocers to properly educate consumers about organic food, understand who their customers are and what they want and devise a marketing strategy to set themselves apart. Many stores have begun positioning themselves as health and wellness centers, setting up informational kiosks about nutrition and having health professionals on staff to talk to customers about dietary concerns.

Experts also say that because organic food sales are so healthy and expected to stay strong, there's room for the big grocers to join the game without squeezing out smaller specialty stores such as Metro Detroit-based Nino Salvaggio and national chain Whole Foods.

There's ample evidence that organic products are big sellers and getting bigger all the time. Organic food sales in the United States climbed 285 percent from 1997 to 2005, to $13.8 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.

And more of that food is being sold at mainstream grocery stores.

A survey taken by the Food Marketing Institute last year showed that 53 percent of shoppers got their organic items from traditional grocery stores in 2006, up from 43 percent in 2004.

The trend caught the attention of officials at Grand Rapids-based Meijer. Three weeks ago, the company launched its own brand of organic foods such as ice cream, pasta and sauces.

"At this point, it's clear to us that our customers want organic," spokeswoman Stacie Behler said. "We wouldn't invest in our own brand if we didn't see growth potential."

Sterling Heights resident Sandra Bunn used to go to Trader Joe's in Royal Oak or Whole Foods Market in Troy to get her organic produce and dairy products. She was thrilled to discover that Meijer, which is closer to her home, sold some organic produce and now has its own brand of USDA-certified organic food.

"Now I don't have to drive all the way out to Oakland County," said Bunn, a homemaker. "I mean, of course I'll do it if my children's health is at stake, but it's nice to be able to go just about anywhere to get organic."

Success at big stores

At Kroger stores, employees can hardly keep organic items on the shelves before the next truckload comes in. Kroger has been selling organic food for several years, but not as much -- or at the same rate -- as it is these days, Hollandsworth said.

He said Kroger will keep offering new organic products if shoppers ask for them. After all, grocery stores are successful only if they give customers what they want, he said.

Customer interest and sales of organic products have steadily grown over the years at Farmer Jack, spokeswoman Angie Bournias said. "There's been a dramatic increase in the number of (organic) things available at the stores," she said.

Besides advertising organics in its weekly circulars, Farmer Jack tries to grab customers' attention by tagging organic items and placing signs throughout the store.

Plenty of customers

There's enough demand for organic products that smaller stores don't have to worry about chain grocers luring customers away, industry professionals said.

Ever since Lucy Kohn came to Michigan from her native Argentina seven years ago, she has bought only organic foods or foods grown at local farms. Kohn, 32, usually goes to Whole Foods Market or Nino Salvaggio to buy her food, but she's noticed that other stores such as Costco -- where she goes to get nonfood items -- have started selling more organic foods recently.

Still, Kohn prefers going to a specialty store or small grocer where someone can tell her where her food is coming from.

"I like getting vegetables from Nino Salvaggio because they work with small farmers and you know they don't use so many chemicals," said Kohn, of Rochester Hills.

Now that the mainstream grocers are aggressively going after the organics market, Troy-based Nino Salvaggio plans to make more noise about the hundreds of organic items it sells, said Fred Rayle, director of operations.

The grocer even sells 42 kinds of organic wine.

"We've been offering organic foods for a long time," Rayle said. "We just haven't gotten behind it and shouted about it."

The company is always putting new organic products in its four stores, Rayle said. Some newer items are organic sugar, lip balm and egg whites.

With a 25-year history of selling organic food, Whole Foods already has a solid reputation in that category, public relations specialist Kate Klotz said. The company differentiates itself from larger grocers and other specialty stores by offering a wider variety of organic items, special programs such as cooking classes and dietary programs for customers with medical issues.

In fact, Whole Foods Market welcomes the chain grocers' increased interest in organics, Klotz said, because they are reaching a bigger audience and creating a bigger market for organics.

"We don't see it as a threat at all," Klotz said. "It really just helps our business."

You can reach Jennifer Youssef at (313) 222-2319 or [log in to unmask].

From: Truth and Progress e-newsletter-Shades of Blue and Green, April ,1, 2007

6. Here's the real VMD diary, and the real title is "Pissed Off Farmers Fight Back."

When you start poking around food policy, you quickly find many laws on the books that simply shouldn't exist - laws equivalent in stupidity to Medicare's inability to negotiate drug prices. For example, many states have "veggie libel laws" (the law the got Oprah Winfrey in trouble), forbidding citizens from badmouthing food and shifting the burden of proof to make it easier to sue for libel. Then there's the idiotic caveat rBGH-free dairy must include, telling consumers that the government sees no difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and milk from those without.

You read this stuff, and you think "Why doesn't somebody revolt?" Finally, some pissed off farmers are doing exactly that! The two issues at stake the farmers are fighting are the ban on testing every single cow for mad cow (vs. the 1% or so of cows that are tested now) and the mandatory adoption of the National Animal ID System (NAIS).

7. Yes, You CAN Test Every Cow For Mad Cow... Maybe
For some background on mad cow, see my previous diary here. For more info, I recommend the book Mad Cow USA by John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton.

Previously, if a meatpacker or farmer wanted to test every single cow for mad cow, he or she was not permitted to do so. You might wonder why, because such a conscientious step (at no cost to anyone but the meatpacker or farmer) seems like a good thing. And, after all, we supposedly live in a free country.

The mere thought of testing every single cow for mad cow scares the  #$%^ out of Big Ag. For one thing, they're after the bottom line, and the tests are expensive. If testing every cow becomes the new standard, Big Ag's bottom line is in trouble. Perhaps more frightening is the possibility that testing reveals new cases of mad cow disease in our country. The economic fallout from a worldwide panic over American beef would be devastating. It's much easier to follow our current Mad Cow policy, which some call "Don't Look, Don't Find."

Since the USDA lives in the pants of Big Ag, it refuses to permit individual meatpackers or farmers to test every single animal. The USDA claims it has the authority to regulate the tests because they are used in the treatment of disease. The catch here is that animals can only be tested for Mad Cow if they are already dead. The only treatment tested animals are going to get is maybe a little A-1 steak sauce or some ketchup.

Creekstone Farms Premium Beef in Arkansas, KS challenged the federal government on this issue - and won! This past week U.S. District Judge James Robertson pointed out the flaw in the USDA's claim that tests performed on dead cows was used to treat disease and ruled that the USDA therefore does not have the authority to regulate mad cow testing. The USDA has until June 1 to appeal. If they fail to do so, the ruling takes effect.


8. Michigan Farmers Resist NAIS
NAIS stands for the National Animal ID System. It came onto my radar shortly before the 2006 election, when I received an email from someone I now consider a friend (albeit an online one, as we've never met in person), who was working on agriculture issues in Missouri. NAIS was HUGE there, she told me, and rural voters were PISSED OFF. People who might normally never consider voting for "the party of abortion and gay marriage" were listening to Claire McCaskill as she promised to defund NAIS if elected (her opponent, Talent, was on the record as being VERY pro-NAIS).

Not long afterwards, Elfling wrote a terrific diary clearly laying out all of the issues farmers and other Americans had with NAIS. The reasons for opposition mentioned in the diary match exactly the reasons cited by Michigan farmers in current news articles: 1) the USDA's method of controlling disease by killing entire herds of animals (sometimes without compensation for the animals' owners); 2) the economic advantages the system gives to factory farmers, putting even more small farmers out of business; and 3) infringement on privacy.

Unfortunately, Elfling's diary scrolled off the page before too many people got a chance to read it (which is disappointing, as Elfling's diaries are consistently wonderful), so I took up the topic by interviewing local farmers for a VMD diary just before the election. The election came and went, but NAIS didn't vanish along with the Republican majority.

 In case you missed the earlier diaries, I'll quickly go over how I see the pros and cons of the NAIS program. There is no doubt that our country should improve food safety and, in doing so, address the risks of mad cow disease, scrapie (a mad cow-like disease in sheep), bird flu, and any other animal disease that may also threaten humans.

This risk for a widespread epidemic occurs most on large factory farms, where animals live in crowded conditions, often in their own manure, and as factory farmed animals are slaughtered and processed, where ground beef from one sick cow may end up in countless hamburgers that are served all over the country. Remember how the spinach grown in a 50-acre field in California resulted in 205 documented (4000 estimated) cases of sickness from E. coli in 26 states? Problems on that scale are the ones that need fixing, and far be it from our government to suggest a solution as logical as buying food locally from organic family farmers.

NAIS offers itself as a solution to the problems of industrialized agriculture, but it's only a weak band-aid at best. It does not fix any of the circumstances that lead to our food safety problems, nor does it improve regulation within meat processing plants, where microbial testing for bacteria occurs far too seldom and (as mentioned above) the government actually tries to forbid meatpackers from testing _too much_ for mad cow. What good is it if we track the animals if we still don't know which ones are the sick ones, and even if we did, the USDA doesn't have the authority to mandate a recall?

On the other hand, small scale producers often know their customers personally, and they are held to high quality standards by the mere fact that their customers can see how the animals are treated on their farms (or, at a farmer's market, they can ask). If all hell broke loose and a small farmer sold tainted meat for some reason, he or she could easily track down most of his or her customers - and given that most sales occurred within a small area, the local news could pick up the story and the problem can be controlled without damaging the businesses of farmers, grocers, restaurants, etc, all over the nation. Last, NAIS is intended to track animal movements, but for many small farmers, their animals spend their entire lives in the exact same place.

If small farmers went along with NAIS, despite their lack of need for it, they would face high costs that increase their competitive disadvantage against factory farms. Already family farmers lose their farms every single day in this country - can you imagine what it would be like if the government made it even more difficult for them to squeak by? In my opinion, NAIS is constructed to look like its doing something about food safety (without actually doing anything) while simultaneously wiping out all of Big Ag's competition from small farmers.

The implementation of NAIS has led to much confusion as it began as a "voluntary" program with an ever-changing date to become mandatory. Currently, a few states are pioneering mandatory implementation, and Michigan is among them. David Gumpert of _Business Week_ has been following the story.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) requires that all cows wear radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, mandatory as of March 1 of this year. It might sound like a simple rule until you hear what Brad Clark, a Michigan farmer who is selling all of his cows instead of complying, has to say:

Cows lose tags like crazy. They get caught in tree limbs. You get an 1,800-pound bull that doesn't want to be tagged, it's an ordeal.

That quote came from a Business Week article called "Farmers Say No To Animal Tags." In the same article, another Michigan farmer, John Dutcher, says:

We sell everything we produce direct to people in the area, and it's all by word of mouth. Technically speaking, if I slaughter a cow, I am supposed to notify the MDA. I'm not going to do that. I guess I'm going to be busted someday because I'm not going to keep records.

Better yet is Greg Niewendorp, who pledged to resist all MDA orders relating to NAIS. Now that the March 1 deadline took effect, making NAIS compliance mandatory, Greg's already had his first opportunity to take his resistance out for a test drive. Some MDA reps showed up on his farm to test his cows for bovine tuberculosis and he refused to let them. He told them they better not come back unless it's with a search warrant.

MDA responded by quarantining his farm, which won't hurt his business any because the cows are born, live, and die all on his farm. Unfortunately, his refusal over bovine TB-testing may come with some unpleasant legal consequences, like a felony charge, up to 5 years in prison, and up to a $50,000 fine.

The big question now is: What will happen next? If you are as pissed off as these farmers, don't hesitate to let your representatives know. In the case of NAIS, be sure to contact your state representatives as well as your federal ones. Congress can defund NAIS or otherwise cripple it on a national level, but it's the state departments of agriculture that make the decisions on whether or not to confront your state's pissed off farmers. And, as always, vote with your fork! Support small farmers by buying from them.



Vicki Morrone

Organic Vegetable and Crop Outreach Specialist

Michigan State University

C.S. Mott Sustainable Food Systems

303 Natural Resources Bldg.

East Lansing, MI 48824


517-282-3557 (cell)

517-353-3834 (fax)