From: Jane Brissett, Duluth News-Tribune
Published November 30, 2005 12:00 AM

Public Ripe for Organic Food

When Martha Han of Duluth shops for groceries, she considers the health of her children, ages 3 and 5.

Some products she buys are certified organic. For instance, she prefers organic grapes and apples for her kids because nonorganic ones contain the highest pesticide levels.

"I won't buy everything organic, but I like having the choice," she said last week while shopping at Cub Foods.

Judging from sales nationwide and anecdotal information locally, people like Han are pushing organics into the mainstream.

"Organic foods are very, very big," said Nancy Christensen, executive director of the Minnesota Grocers Association.

Even as specialty stores such as the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth expand their organic offerings -- the co-op recently moved to far larger quarters -- half of organic retail sales now take place in conventional grocery stores, according to Ronnie Cummins. He's national director of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn.

More than 20 percent of the items in certain departments of Cub Foods stores, for example, are organic or natural, said Mike Witt, vice president of merchandising at Cub Foods in Minnesota. About a year ago, Cub expanded its produce department, in part to accommodate more organic fruit and vegetables.

Of 106 million households in the United States, 13 million consistently buy organic, he said.

Sales of certified-organic products in food, drug and mass merchandising stores -- excluding Wal-Mart -- grew to $4.1 billion in the 52 weeks ending Oct. 8, according to ACNielsen, a New York market information company. That's a 16.7 percent increase from a year earlier.

In the Duluth area, Super One Foods, Festival Foods and Cub have separate organic and natural foods sections. Other stores, such as Mount Royal Fine Foods, mingle organics among conventional products, but an upcoming expansion will make room for an organics area.

Depending on the store, offerings include organic fruit, vegetables, milk, baking mixes, eggs, flour, cereal, frozen prepared food and a host of other products.

"Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations," says the United States Department of Agriculture's Web site. The USDA also says that certified organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals raised without being given antibiotics or growth hormones.

A product bearing the "USDA organic" seal indicates it is at least 95 percent organic. The seal was adopted three years ago.

Terms such as "natural," "free-range" and "hormone-free" are not the same as organic, but those products often are grouped with organic offerings, and many of the same consumers tend to buy them.

It takes three years for farmers to receive the certification, and it's an expensive proposition, which is why prices for organic food are generally higher.

Minnesota had 252 certified organic crop farms in 2002 and 43,375 acres certified to raise organic crops, according to the most recent USDA figures.

Right now, customers pay25 percent to 100 percent more for organic food. At Cub, for example, fresh organic whole milk sells for $5.98 per gallon while fresh nonorganic milk can be purchased a few yards away for $3.69 per gallon.

Although still a small part of sales at Super One, "the organic is definitely growing," said Bob Halvorson, vice president of operations at Miner's Inc., which owns 17 Super One Foods stores in the region.

Mount Royal Fine Foods sold about 100 free-range (but not organic) turkeys for Thanksgiving for $1.99 a pound, according to Ron Johnston, who heads the store's meat department. That's double the number sold a year ago, he said. At the same time, the store was selling frozen turkeys with a coupon for59 cents a pound and fresh turkeys for about $1 a pound.

Like Han, many people buy organic because they're concerned about their own health or that of their children, Cummins said.

"People are quite willing to pay more for what they perceive to be a healthier choice," he said.

The USDA, however, doesn't endorse organic products as being safer or more nutritious.

Buying organic products supports local farmers and organic methods have the potential to change agriculture in general, Cummins said. But he also worries about the demands of mass marketers.

"These big companies like Wal-Mart want production now, and they want it cheap," he said. The Organic Consumers Association wants them to sign long-term contracts and help farmers and ranchers convert their operations.

Cummins is concerned, too, about importing organic crops from countries where workers are paid poorly.

"We don't want slave-labor soybeans," he said.

Policies will have to change in St. Paul and Washington to prevent the organic food industry from going astray, Cummins said.

Clearly, the public's view of organic food has come a long way.

"We were mere Utopian fantasizers 30 years ago. Now, we're arguing standards on the national news," he said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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