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Produce Integrity: What Do We Really Know?

Integrative Pest Management (IPM), Certified Organic, Locally Grown—these are just a few of the marketing terms used in today’s ever-growing produce industry. They provide the product with added value and enable us to make educated choices on our purchases. They are often associated with premium products with premium prices!

But what do we really know about all this? With all the terminology, politics, and food safety concerns in the media recently, this is a question Produce staff are frequently asked, and is often difficult to answer! Let’s start with what we do know.

The produce selection at the Willy Street Co-op is composed largely of certified organic produce which, when in season locally, is purchased through local growers. Product is otherwise sourced and purchased through regional distributors. Well, what does that mean?

  1. Growers must verify their organic status by supplying the Co-op a copy of their certification prior to any business transactions.
  2. Distributors must comply with the requirements and regulations as outlined by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) for any product sold as “organic.” The NOP states “any operation that knowingly sells or labels a product as organic, except in accordance with the Act [Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, as amended], shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $11,000 per violation.”

We know the farmers have been certified and inspected by USDA accredited agencies. They are inspected annually, and may be inspected and subject to testing at any time following initial inspection. Distributors and retailers, often referred to as “handlers,” must demonstrate their compliance with the NOP’s requirements and regulations regarding the proper handling of organic produce, and are subject to random inspections to verify compliance. Handlers must keep records verifying producer and distributor certification. They must be able to provide documentation of systems and practices implemented to ensure the integrity of organic products.

Global organics

“Well, great, but what about imported produce? Can we really trust their organic status? We can’t drink the water in Mexico, so if they’re using that water to wash the produce, how can it be organic?” Good question!

Any product exported from a foreign country to the U.S. to be sold as certified organic must have been produced under the supervision of a national program or agency accredited by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Foreign programs and agencies that apply for recognition are evaluated on the same criteria as domestic certification agencies. Currently, there are forty NOP-accredited certification agencies. In addition to certifying farms, agencies are also responsible for the scrutiny of labeling, packaging, and storage, and transportation of certified products. If the product’s organic integrity has been sacrificed at any time, it is stripped of its organic status, and must be sold as conventional.

“Yeah, but what about the water? How can it be organic if we can’t drink it?” This is a tough one, and, for a rookie produce employee, intimidating!

Mexican water contains single-cell parasites that can cause violent gastro-intestinal problems. However, those who have grown up drinking the water havebuilt up a tolerance, and can drink the water without the adverse side effects associated with “Montezuma’s Revenge.” I’m going out on a limb here, but my only guess as to how produce washed in this water can be certified is that the organisms are naturally occurring or the organisms die when the water has evaporated. Mexico supplies the U.S. with a tremendous amount of fresh produce, both conventional and organic. Clearly, there would be millions of documented reports of illness associated with the use of Mexican water on produce if it were not safe to consume, and we would have stopped importing it years ago.

Local vs. organic

Demand for locally grown produce is bigger than ever! In a recent study of core natural food shoppers, “locally grown” trumps “organic” in their purchasing decisions. The Produce department at the Co-op supports several local farmers who have chosen not to get certified. Growers who report less than $5,000 a year on a single product can call the product organic according to the NOP, as long as they follow the requirement of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. It cannot be labeled as ‘certified organic.’ To ensure the integrity of our certified produce, we choose to display this product from our conventional case, with a purple insert indicating that it is a local product.

Why would a farmer use organic practices and chose not to certify? Some farmers simply don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy. They produce a small volume, and provide transparency regarding their practices to their clients.

For others, it’s a risk management decision. Certain crops, say like potatoes, blueberries, or corn, are extremely susceptible to pressure from disease and pests. Farmers often choose low spray and IPM practices over organic certification. If they are in jeopardy of losing an entire crop, they have options for reducing the risk of loss. Midwest Food Alliance and WI Growers are two organizations helping promote sustainable practices with local farms. Farms are certified and held to the organizations standards. As with organic certification, farms are inspected by third-party agents to verify their compliance with the organization’s standards.

Can we assume that all local produce is grown using sustainable practices? I would encourage you as the consumer to be proactive and inquire about what kinds of practices the farmers you purchase from are using. I’ve had conversations with several certified organic growers who sell at farmers’ markets, and time after time, I hear that misinformation is occurring between sellers and consumers. It’s not that the farmer is intentionally not being truthful; it’s simply that they may not have a good understanding of sustainable or organic practices. As a consumer, you should be as specific as you can when inquiring about growing methods. Instead of asking about spraying pesticides, inquire as to how they control insects. If they are using pesticides, ask what they’re called and do some research on your own!

The department’s role

Once product hits our loading dock, it is our responsibility to maintain the integrity of the product. In fact, we’re obsessive about it!

We use what the National Organic Program defines as “Best Practices,” and go above and beyond to ensure the organic integrity of the products we sell. We have separate knives, sinks, and cutting boards for conventional and organic produce. We isolate conventional product in its own display case. We go so far as to use separate bins when culling product, so that organic product never gets taken off the shelf and placed in a conventional bin. We have a designated backstock shelf for conventional produce. It’s a bottom shelf, so nothing can fall or drip on the organic products. Receivers are trained to inspect trucks for any possible contaminants. While breaking down pallets, receivers are trained to look for the USDA’s organic seal. No seal, no deal! The productgoes into a designated quarantine area. We request a copy of certification via the distributor and/or the grower. If neither can verify certification, the product remains in quarantine until it is returned to the distributor.

We take our produce seriously around here, because we know you do. For some members, conventional is not an option. When you purchase organic produce at the Willy Street Co-op, that’s exactly what you’re getting!