Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oh Joe and the O No! of Certified Organics.

I mention Trader Joe's often. Our family shops there weekly-- just as we also make a weekly or biweekly stop for a few items at Whole Foods (for Gabe's organic produce I can't find elsewhere, local cheese, and Nature's Rancher Chicken) and local farm stands (for as much of our produce as possible).

But the bulk of our packaged, frozen, dairy, and protein products all come from our weekly stop at Trader Joe's. Because of this, it obviously irked me when I saw a blog post referring to a May article in Sustainable Industries questioning Trader Joe's seemingly eco-friendly practices.

I came across the blog post because I had deliberately googled Trader Joe's organic practices. The more I read, the more I realize that the organic label is not necessarily the best promise on how sustainable a farm is. And since I fed Gabriel his first organic plain whole milk yogurt from Trader Joe's this morning, I thought, hmmm... I really should know where this milk originated.

And this article points out the problem with Trader Joe's. They do not disclose who their feeder farms are-- so they literally will not tell you where my baby's yogurt originated. And because they do not offer disclosure, it leads consumers to wonder if the low prices at Trader Joe's are actually due to their selling mostly Trader Joe's label products (cutting out the middle man and a lot of distributor mileage) or because their products are organic at a cost.

This brings up some issues with the organic "label," which I have not really discussed on my blog prior to now. Organic food is optimum when taking into consideration it is better to consume foods without pesticides, grass-fed meats, etc. But just because a farm is certified organic does not mean its practices are totally sustainable. For instance, and this is per my watching of the film No Impact Man (I'll post more fully on this later) last night, an organic farm might keep to organic standards, but they might not treat their cows as nicely as the non-certified farm down the street. And that non-certified farm may only not be certified because it costs so much money to go through the certification process OR because they do treat their sick cows with antibiotics as needed whereas certified organic dairy farms cannot treat their cows with antibiotics ever.

But let's remember that the certified organic label is helpful and an honorable thing for a farm, and it is a clear indication to a consumer that a product does meet a certain standard. There are lobbyists trying to extinguish or lax the standards for the organic label, and that prospect is much scarier than the current pitfalls in organic certification. Many organic advocates want more stringent standards. You can go here for more information on organic certification.

When Trader Joe's will not disclose the farms used for their organic food, the question is raised: Are the locales a secret for the sake of competition (and that's almost fair-- Trader Joe's sure does have the best prices for the coolest food around. Why jeopardize losing customers by telling other companies where to go get the same product base?) or for the sake of keeping secrets from their eco-minded consumers? "No comment," is never a good answer.

While reading these articles will not deter me from shopping at Trader Joe's, it is going to again ramp up my efforts to purchase more local food. When it's local, you can go step onto that farm and see things for yourself. There is full disclosure because there are no closed doors. As a journalist, I see transparency as required, so why shouldn't I expect that of my food?

In any case, we'll be taking our first trip to a new(er) local farm market this Saturday, and it will be the opening of our more official dedication to local food. And that will be including our protein and dairy and whatever else we eat. It's time to take our food revolution to the next level-- local.


  1. I totally feel the same way you do about local farms! My husband and I watch No Impact Man a few months ago and our eyes were totally opened about "Organic" and "Natural" products.

  2. The rules and regulations governing organic certification have been gradually eroded over time. At this point, it's basically meaningless from a sustainability or animal welfare standpoint, which is why I don't put a lot of faith in big ag organics. Local rules!

  3. I can only aspire to becoming a locovore, as I live in the heart of D.C.. I hope to have a place sson where I can have my own garden. Your blog is adorable. I popped in from SITSAs. ;-)

  4. We are moving to DC tomorrow and I have spent a lot of time researching food stuff in the area. There are lots of CSAs to join (including meat ones, if you eat meat). There are also places to buy raw milk and spend time with the animals. Message me if you are interested Evelyn!