New organic regs sprout changes in Juneau stores

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

From the small, locally-owned Rainbow Foods natural grocery store to the larger, national retailers such as Fred Meyer, grocery stores in Juneau are gearing up to comply with new federal organic food regulations.

The rules for organic certification don't even allow organic and nonorganic foods to be washed in the same sink, let alone displayed in the same bin. With penalties of up to $10,000 if food represented as organic is contaminated with nonorganic compounds, stores in Juneau are taking the regulations seriously.

The National Organic Program rules, which took effect Oct. 21, prohibit the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge in certified organic production and handling. In general, the use of all synthetic substances are prohibited, along with petroleum-based fertilizers. Animals must be fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Juneau stores are dealing with the new regulations in several ways. Rainbow Foods, a downtown health food store, is using the process of elimination.

"We've just gone all organic, to make it simple," Ottoson said. "We were selling mushrooms that were nonorganic, but we're not going to do that anymore."

Besides the mushrooms, the new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations won't have a serious effect on Rainbow Foods' organic line-up. In addition to apples and oranges, the store carries organic potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, onions, squash, pears, grapes, kiwis, cranberries, melons, zucchini, sprouts and strawberries.

The big deal about the new labels, Ottoson said, is that the federal government, instead of private agencies, is recognizing and labeling organic food.

"Before there were all kinds of private agencies certifying it," he said. "Now they're willing to put a USDA label on it certifying that it is what it says it is."

Mike Sakarias, a Juneau resident who buys at least some organic food every time he goes shopping, said he buys organic because it is pesticide-free and does not contain genetically modified ingredients. He has mixed feelings about the new USDA label.

"I think it's interesting how far the organic farming market has come," Sakarias said. "Larger farmers are realizing there's money in organic farming. Part of me worries, though, that because there's money in it, people are going to cheat on it and say something's organic when it's really not."

Aurah Landau, a downtown Juneau resident who buys organic produce from Rainbow Foods as often as she can, said any regulations that take agro-business toward a more sustainable existence is an advantage. She worries, though, that USDA standards may become more lax than other certifying boards, such as the California Certified Organic Farmers organization.

"I feel the standards are likely to be looser once it's more mainstreamed," she said.

While Rainbow Foods is dealing with the new regulations by eliminating nonorganic produce from their selection, more conventional grocery stores have to look at other options. Ian Martin, the produce manager at Super Bear, plans to continue to carry organic and nonorganic produce.

"I am going to continue to expand my organic line, but I'm going to expand the bagged produce instead of the loose," Martin said. "Pretty much every kind of organic item you can think of, you can get in a package. Sticking to packaged produce will prevent a lot of headaches in the store."

Super Bear carries a limited stock of organic produce, mostly carrots, lettuce and fresh herbs, but likely will expand its selection in the near future.

"I've had a lot of positive feedback from customers on organic items," Martin said. "Organic has taken off so much that it would be stupid for me to limit my organic category just because of (the new regulations)."

The regulations may be a chore for Fred Meyer, which has a large selection of nonorganic and organic loose produce.

"We'll have to wash it separately, and change the water between washing organic and nonorganic produce," said Fred Sayre, store director at the Juneau Fred Meyer. The store's organic produce is shipped to Juneau in containers separate from nonorganic produce, and is displayed in separate bins.

He said he doesn't anticipate the store's produce routine changing too much because of the new regulations, though.

"If a customer moves an organic apple to a nonorganic bin, we'll just peel the label and sell it as nonorganic," he said.

Organics are a potentially lucrative market, with growth in retail sales topping 20 percent annually since 1990, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service.

Organic food sales totaled nearly $8 billion in the United States in 2000, and organic farmland in this country is now estimated at 2.4 million acres.

The organic rules were a decade in the making and are expected to only further growth in the organic industry, according to the USDA.

Organic products are sold in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73 percent of all conventional grocery stores. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in conventional supermarkets than any other venue.

"We've been carrying organic products off and on for decades," said Rob Boley, an executive for Portland, Ore.-based Fred Meyer, which has 132 stores in five Western states and is part of the Cincinnati-based Kroger chain.

"We've seen a big increase in popularity in the last couple of years."

More information on the new organic regulations can be found on the Internet site for the USDA Organic Program:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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