Smile Politely

Organics gain popularity, retain mystery

Jan Caffrey sometimes buys organic products, but feels ambivalent about them. She is unsure what the difference between organic and non-organic products is.

“I haven’t gone out just to buy (an organic product), but if it’s there, I’ll buy it,” she said. She said that although she doesn’t notice a difference, organics just “sound better.” She expects them to contain fewer preservatives and chemicals. While she doesn’t expect additional nutrients, she feels that organics are healthier because they have “less of the bad stuff,” she said. 

Caffrey embodies the typical local consumer when it comes to organic products. Organic and natural foods are becoming increasingly available and popular, yet many consumers are unclear on what these labels say about the products they’re putting in their shopping carts.

Sales of organic food and drinks have multiplied from $1 billion in 1997 to $20 billion in 2007, according to the Organic Trade Association. Illinois farms 1,160 varieties of organic vegetables. This comprises 1.8 percent of its total farming acreage, above the national average of 1.3 percent, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Although local stores are unable to give out specific sales numbers, Schnucks, Jerry’s IGA, and County Market all report that their sales of organic products are up over past years, and are expanding their offerings of natural and organic products.

Despite buying these products, consumers have experienced confusion about what the term “organic” means. “I don’t think people understand,” said Dan Anderson, research and outreach specialist in agriculture at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (UIUC).

“Organic doesn’t guarantee that food is chemical-free,” he said.

Deborah-Cavanaugh Grant, specialist in small farm and sustainable agriculture at the UIUC extension, agrees that confusion surrounds the nature of organic products.

“Most consumers don’t understand that when you buy an organically certified product, it’s not certifying the product, just the process,” she said. “There are no claims about the product or nutrition.”

Despite these muddled understandings and even in the face of a plummeting economy, sales of organic and natural products are thriving in Champaign-Urbana.

Sales of organic and natural products are “growing all the time,” said Lisa McKee, organic foods manager at County Market, 2901 W. Kirby Ave., Champaign. She measures this by an increased number of special requests, and said she sees a particular increase in her sales of organic dairy products, which were up 13 percent over the previous year.

Bill Nicholson, grocery manager at Schnucks, 200 N. Vine St., Urbana, estimates that sales of organic products are remaining steady or even rising, even as consumer spending drops nationwide. He pointed to a box of Full Circle brand organic oat bran and said, “We can’t keep this on the shelf.”

However, Kristine Masley, natural foods manager at Jerry’s IGA, 2110 Round Barn Rd., Champaign, said that organic food sales are mirroring other grocery sales.

“It’s no different in this section than in other sections,” she said. “People are not buying the luxury items. Where they might have bought seven or eight natural and organic products, maybe now they buy four or five.” She said people focus on buying dairy, meat, and vitamins in her section, more often foregoing products such as chips, chocolate, and wine.

So when buying products labeled as “natural” or “organic,” how can a consumer know what is going into their product?

“The word ‘organic’ has legal standing,” said Cavanaugh-Grant. “The government owns the word.”

Conversely, according to Anderson, the term “natural” doesn’t carry any meaning. “People use it as a marketing ploy,” he said.

However, when asked what people can expect when buying products labeled as “natural” in her section, Kristine Masley of Jerry’s IGA said, “It’s almost the same as organic, but it’s not as stringent. It’s what we term ‘healthy’-type products, with low sugar and low additives.”

Though Cavanaugh-Grant said some certifying entities are trying to standardize the meaning of “natural,” no standards currently exist. “From a consumer’s perspective, the only thing you can be sure of is if it’s organic,” she said.

And even organics aren’t foolproof. Farmers earning less than $5,000 from the sale of organic products don’t need to undergo certification. Though their food must still be handled according to federal standards, no one tests their compliance.

For larger-scale farmers, organic certification means undergoing once-yearly inspections. Inspectors don’t test food, but instead examine the facilities and farm equipment. In between yearly visits, it is impossible to determine how food is produced, said Cavanaugh-Grant.

“It becomes a matter of trust at a certain level,” she said. She gives an example of what she considers “corruption” of the term “free range,” which means that animals must have access to the outdoors.

“Chickens can poke their heads outdoors and be called ‘free-range’ and people don’t understand,” she said. “Are they really missing the intent?”

“People can cheat,” said Anderson. “Most try to be ethical and play by the rules.”

According to the UIUC Extension, organic farming means that farmers employ “proactive, ecological management strategies that maintain and enhance soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, promote and enhance biological diversity, and minimize risk to human and animal health and natural resources.”

These farms must aim to use preventative weed and insect prevention methods, and then aim to use nontoxic methods to manage pest problems, using other organically approved methods only when these fail. In addition, all products certified as organic must comply with the standards of the National Organic Program through accreditation.

Cavanaugh-Grant suggests that organic approved pesticides may not be as glamorous as people believe, pointing to the potential use of tobacco and lead to keep pests away. “Some of these organic pesticides are more toxic than regular pesticides,” she said.

Anderson said that recent food scares, such as the outbreak of salmonella linked to peanut butter, motivate people to buy organic. However, he said that many of the products causing illness were certified organic.

Anderson explained that many operations use the same machinery to process both organic and nonorganic products, but must clean the machinery according to regulation standards between uses. He said the plants in question “hadn’t been inspected in years.”

“There’s no guarantee” that organic foods are safe from illness-causing bacteria,” Anderson said.

With these caveats for the nutrition and even safety of organically-grown food, both Anderson and Cavanaugh-Grant suggest that the reason people buy organics has less to do with their perceptions of differences between products and more to do with wanting to feel more connected to their food and to support environmentally-friendly farming practices.

“Eating is on so many levels,” said Cavanaugh-Grant. “It’s the essence of our lives. We’ve gotten away from food.” She suggests that people want to reconnect with their food.

In that way, Anderson said, people often feel the same way about organics that they do about local farming. “We don’t know where our food comes from,” he said. “There’s no feedback loop.” When people buy locally-grown food, they can interact with the farmers who grow their food.

Shoppers in Champaign-Urbana can look not only to specialty for organic foods, but also to many grocery stores that have large organic selections.

County Market offers a special section for organic and natural foods. However, some items in the section, such as Kashi frozen dinners, have no labeling as either organic or natural. But simply by virtue of being in the natural section, they may cost more. Case in point: Kashi frozen dinners sell for $3.99 at competing Meijer in Champaign, but cost $5.99 in the natural section of County Market. However, County Market does have a row of Wild Organic brand products, which generally cost less than other organics.

Jerry’s IGA has a similar natural foods section. Masley says many customers appreciate and use the store’s markings for food, which include labels such as “gluten-free,” “dairy-free,” and “vegetarian.”

Schnucks offers a partial aisle for organic products and had a selection of 136 organic items throughout the store on a recent visit.

For Urbana residents Grace and William Schoedel, organics are normally not worth what they consider to be a large price difference. The few times they have bought organic produce, said William, it was because it seemed fresher.

“I was looking for quality rather than some mystical property it might have,” he said.

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