It may come as no surprise to some, but certified organic food is still the most regulated and accountable food system in the United States. On the other end of the accountability spectrum however, foods labeled as “natural” require no United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or governmental certification to be labeled as such. Which is why consumers have every right to demand better standards from the USDA when producers pull the organic “bait and switch,” as we’ve been seeing more of.

In accordance with the laws of the National Organic Program, certifiers of organic food require fastidious recordkeeping for farmers and producers, including receipts, logs, as well as visual inspections of the farms or facilities they certify. And as organic consumers we pay a premium for these worthy goods because we believe in this better, safer way of growing food. Peace Cereal and Golden Temple are two more in the growing collection of producers that have quietly removed the word “organic” from their labeling but have failed to change the price or the price code on their products (they are currently still available at our Co-op). In February, the Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, labeling the manufacturer as a “bad actor” for “trying to profit from the good name and reputation of certified organics, and exploiting consumer trust” when the manufacturer switched from using certified organic ingredients, but continued to strategically use the sides of their cereal boxes to perpetuate the “idea” that natural is as good as certified organic. They’re doing this by printing that “natural foods are foods without pesticides or artificial additives, as well as being minimally processed and preservative-free,” despite there being no legal or accountable basis for consumers to believe these claims. This cereal maker, along with Horizon and others, have been cited over the past years for misleading consumers when in fact their products are no longer certified organic. Adding insult to injury, they do not reflect reduced, non-organic ingredient prices.

Continuing with their deceptive practices, the incidences of proper notification to retail stores about changes in these products has been spotty at best. With the Silk soymilks (Dean Foods) switch, it was shoppers who first called attention to the fact that the label no longer said certified organic, but everything else about the packaging was identical, including the bar code and price. Peace Cereals/Golden Temple did send some notification, but again, their prices did not reflect the changes. In all, without sufficient regulation for all food manufacturers, this activity is all too common, which now forces retailers to bear the burden of inspecting each certified organic product’s ingredient list when opening a new case.

Old Dog, New Tricks
Alarmingly, we know from industry research that a majority of consumers mistakenly believe that foods labeled as “natural” or simply claiming to contain ingredients “grown without pesticides” are equal to, or in some cases better, than certified organic foods—which is not true. And we also suspect that it’s likely this belief has been cultivated in consumers for the benefit of corporations looking to cash in on consumer naivety. But how do we combat this misperception when we (Willy Street Co-op) continue to label ourselves with the word “natural” as well?

Explaining the difference between a co-op and another “natural” food store to a new shopper recently, I was again struck by one common and regrettable misinterpretation about our Co-op—while we strive to feature local, organic and “natural” foods, it must be said for all to hear that not every product on our shelves is free of artificial colors, preservatives, or other controversial ingredients. However, if there is a product claiming to be “natural,” our policy is to evaluate that product to verify that it is minimally processed and contains product-appropriate ingredients (foods free of unnecessary and unhealthful additives).

Why would the Co-op even carry these products, you ask? It is because we are a co-op (community-owned) that we strive to balance the needs of our Owners who support us, while at the same time committing ourselves to educate about the foods being offered so that each person can make their own decision about what to eat.

To date, our Cooperative hasn’t excluded non-organic foods, and our mission is clear about staying accessible for all members of our community regardless of income. Dean Kallas, Purchasing Manager for the Co-op explained more about the balance aspect of this commitment, “[We] try to provide a range of products to fit every budget. This same principal is applied to every category of product we sell. Some customers want the very best tasting products regardless of price. Others are shopping on a limited budget. The Co-op strives to serve the needs of the neighborhood and to respond to the requests of our Owners.” In a 2006 survey, Willy Street Co-op Owners were asked to voice their opinions about whether or not they think all of the products the Co-op carries are healthy. Eighty-one percent said no, while 18.7% said yes. In that same survey, Owners were asked if they thought all of the products the Co-op carries should be healthy. Seventy-seven percent said no and 22.6% said yes.

From the first days of our Co-op’s existence, the leading factor in continuing to offer a product is closely tied with the sales, or movement, of that product. While keeping an eye on our stores’ shelves, our buyers stay keenly aware of what’s being purchased by shoppers and what is not. Add that to the consistently high number of product requests we receive each month and the limited amount of shelf space, and one may start to see our challenge.

At Willy Street Co-op, we strive to offer wholesome, natural, local, organic and sustainable foods at prices as low as possible. When we are able, we offer these products from other cooperatives and reputable companies run responsibly, ethically, and in environmentally sound ways. Additionally, our Owners have expressed their preference for products meeting this description, when available, through their purchases and surveys. None of this is to say that we can’t discuss carrying only those foods that meet a particular standard; this would likely be a very spirited discussion.

Meanwhile, except for certified organic foods, consumers concerned about artificial ingredients in their foods are still on the hook for reading the list of ingredients on the box, even at Willy Street Co-op. Maybe one day, certified organic and truly natural foods will be most consumers’ first choice, but for now, the supply and demand for certified organic foods forces organic prices much higher, and to remain accessible, we often carry non-organic foods to serve a wider range of people’s incomes. On the other hand, higher prices for certified organic foods also encourages false-hearted producers to muddy the waters with unregulated or unsubstantiated claims about their foods for their own benefit—at the cost of organic integrity. 

Co-op definitions
The following is more information on and definitions for the words we use at Willy Street Co-op to accurately describe what we mean when we say:

Local
We consider foods and goods produced in the state of Wisconsin or within 150 miles of the Capitol to be local. We also give preference to items of superior quality from the Midwest region.

Sustainable
Foods and non-food products produced in a manner that has minimal negative impact and when possible which provide nutritive benefits to the environment, community and consumers that support their production.

Organic
According to the National Organic Program: 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. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled organic, a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Natural
Our definition of natural refers to food that is minimally processed and contains product appropriate ingredients; foods free of unnecessary and unhealthful additives.

Adding products
Common reasons we add products include:

  • To address customer requests; consumer demand
  • To address problems in availability; i.e. manufacturer discontinued, distributor discontinued
  • To replace items not selling well; those products that our Owners do not care for

 

Removing products
Common reasons we discontinue products include:

  • To address the above mentioned concerns of availability and popularity
  • To support our Boycott Policy and procedures
  • To address Owner complaints and quality issues
  • To offer a slow seller through the pre-order system and use its shelf space for items in greater demand

Seasonal products and promotions
Willy Street Co-op acknowledges all religious traditions with respect for their customs and celebrations. When appropriate we offer some seasonal goods to meet the needs of our diverse Owners.