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Hannaford’s Organic Certification And Misguided Consumers/Press

Our piece, Hannaford Becomes First Organic-Certified Mainstream Retailer, attracted a great deal of attention, and now the Associated Press has caught wind of the story:

Tara Withington, with her two young sons in tow, combs the aisles of Hannaford Bros. Co. supermarket for what she deems healthy enough to feed her family. Besides reading ingredients and studying her fruit for bruises, Withington says she needs a guarantee the organic foods she buys are kept far, far away from the store’s conventional products.

”I need to know it’s natural and I’m not giving them chemicals,” said Withington, 33, of Milton. “I’m trying to keep them healthy, and this reassures me that they are not coming into contact with anything I don’t want them to.”

The article is a little wacky. At one point, it calls The Kroger Co. a “smaller supermarket chain” and says it is “certified” without pointing out that this only applies to a few milk-based products, two types of instant oatmeal and a few almonds, pecans and walnuts SKUs. The article claims a “growing number” of supermarket chains seeking certification without quantification or explanation.

It also reports the obvious with an air of discovery. Here is a shocker:

The move by Hannaford is being watched carefully by other chains considering similar measures, such as Massachusetts-based Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc. and Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., according to spokesmen for both companies.

The article quotes experts who speak of things they know nothing about:

Sam Beattie, a specialist at Iowa State University’s Institute for Food Safety and Security, said the certification is the best way for regular supermarkets to get a leg up in the organic food industry, where sales in the United States went from $6 billion in 2000 to $14 billion in 2005.

“They recognize that the organic foods industry is increasing in leaps and bounds over the last decade,” he said. “In stores like Whole Foods where all of the food is organic, there’s no issue associated with segregation. But regular grocery stores, where maybe a quarter of the food is organic, become suspect.”

We are sure Sam Beattie is a great guy and a world class food safety expert, but he has, obviously, never been in a Whole Foods, as the store is not even close to 100% organic and has signs all over the produce department proclaiming that these items are conventionally grown.

Still, the article raises real questions regarding organic and conventional supermarkets:

Santo Carnabuci, who manages the Hannaford in Quincy, said customers were beginning to demand reassurance as they became more in tune to what organic really means.

“people that are totally into buying organic foods, they understand that it cannot coexist with something that isn’t organic,” he said. “Our responsibility is making sure the products stay organic from point A to point B, when it’s in your hands. If you don’t take all of the steps and keep things separate, it nullifies it.”

If you want to know the state of the world right now, one can learn a lot by reading the quote from the Organic Trade Association:

Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association said the certification is important to the industry because the Department of Agriculture doesn’t have enough personnel to monitor grocery stores throughout the country.

“One of the advantages of a retailer becoming certified is that it shows they are taking that extra step,” Haumann said. “It’s important to know that if you’re eating something organic, water from another food didn’t drip on it in a storage room.”

Actually, it is completely unclear that it is important to know that water from another produce item didn’t drip on some organic produce. There is no evidence that a drip will hurt anyone, affect taste, health or anything else. Remember this produce typically grew in fields for months, getting hit by rain, bird droppings and who knows what else. If the bag is jostled, a tomato might hit the floor of the trunk or a counter top, neither of which are sanitized surfaces.

And the implications of thinking this is important boggle the mind.

Unless one’s kitchen is so managed that nothing but 100% organic food can enter the doorway, wouldn’t it be equally important to maintain separate dishwashers, plates, cups, silverware? It reminds one of nothing so much as maintaining kosher kitchens in which the Jewish prohibition against combining milk and meat requires totally separate sets of dishes, etc.

But since when did organic become a religion? This is not a matter of a faith; we are supposed to have reasons for the things we do.

The Perishables Group did a study on organics in conventional supermarkets, which we reviewed in our piece, ‘Take-Aways’ From United’s Short Course On Organics. Although the study found different motivations for heavy and light users of organics, it did not find any mad fear of a drip on the Romaine.

The truth is that if consumers believe organics “cannot co-exist with something that isn’t organic,” or that “If you don’t take all of the steps and keep things separate, it nullifies it,” as this Hannaford manager states, then it is hard to believe they will shop at a conventional supermarket, it is hard to believe they will even shop at Whole Foods, and it is very doubtful that a once-a-year inspection is going to persuade anyone that a conventional tomato might never have been placed in the organic tomato bin by a consumer.

If one really thinks that organic and conventional “cannot co-exist,” then one can’t shop at regular stores for perishables. Just as no customer that is seriously kosher buys his kosher deli meat at a counter that sells ham — and no certification or promise to use a special slicer will make a difference.

Organic certification is often a good idea for retailers. It is a good idea as a PR move to reassure mainstream consumers that you are doing good stuff for the world, not to think that by getting certified organic, your conventional stores will attract hard-core organic devotees.

And as for Ms. Withington, quoted in the very beginning of the article as explaining that she “… needs a guarantee the organic foods she buys are kept far, far away from the store’s conventional products,”does she not know that organically grown produce is grown with plenty of chemicals and why do we doubt that she has seriously studied the list of permissible chemicals to use in organic growing so she can be so certain her children are not coming in contact with anything she doesn’t want them to?

If I run into her one day, I will ask her opinion on Chilean Nitrate and if she favors the old rule or the new rule on its permissibility in organic agriculture.

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