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Organic Foods Help Environmental Responsibility

Feb. 4, 2008
Another reason to reformulate for organics: environmental responsibility.

Lynn Gordon, founder and CEO of French Meadow Bakery, has a passion for organic baking that began before organic was popular, back when you were considered a “nut” or a “kook,” she says, for seeking out organic ingredients at small farms and tiny health food stores. It was a time when gas was cheap and environmentalists were called “tree huggers.”

French Meadow Bakery (www.frenchmeadow.com), Minneapolis, still backs several environmental causes (including the Sierra Club and Heifer Intl.) and sells Healthy Hemp and other innovative breads. But now those products are going nationwide to mainstream supermarkets, co-ops and health food stores. One early client, Whole Foods, is no longer a small, niche chain.

French Meadow Bakery has grown up, in a manner of speaking, and so has the organic movement. While it’s long been associated with social causes, the organic movement’s evolution now is linking it to environmental concerns. Therein lies another foundation for its continuing growth – and a significant marketing opportunity for those processors willing to reformulate a little to capitalize on this association.

“Consumers purchase organic foods for different reasons, and health is certainly on the top of the list since organic foods do not have many of the additives conventional foods contain,” says Kent Spalding, vice president of marketing at Weetabix/Barbara’s Bakery. “There is also a general commitment by those that supply organic foods to support sustainability, fair trade and the environment.”

Know the rules

USDA allows three labeling categories for organic products:

  1. 100% Organic — made with 100 percent organic ingredients
  2. Organic — made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 5 percent (no genetically modified organisms, or GMOs)
  3. Made with Organic Ingredients — made with a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30 percent (including no GMOs).

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/archive/OFPA.html) and the National Organic Program (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/FactSheets/ProdHandE.html) outline organic production and handling standards. Any product that bears the USDA Organic seal must be verified, inspected and certified by independent state or private organizations accredited by USDA.

Certification includes inspections of farms and processing facilities, detailed record keeping and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure growers and handlers are meeting the U.S. standards. Certifiers inspect and verify there is an audit trail tracing all organic ingredients back to the organic fields from which they were grown.

The regulations on organics are stringent, but more than the rules regarding organic claims are at issue. Organic foods have integrated into the greening of America, and those who showcase their organic products are often equally passionate about promoting sustainability.

“Organic food represents a thorough process that considers every aspect of production from soil to finished product in the light of the organic principles,” says George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.coop), a farming cooperative based in LaFarge, Wis. Many organic marketers have implemented environmentally friendly practices such as green buildings, alternative energy, local production and sustainable investments in manufacturing efficiencies.

“Organic brands like Organic Valley broaden the process to include other criteria not covered by the USDA organic [rules] such as environmental footprint, minimal processing and animal husbandry,” adds Siemon.

Profitably socially conscious

In 1983, Stonyfield Farm co-founders Samuel Kaymen and current president/CEO Gary Hirshberg wrote the company’s enduring mission statements, among which was, “to serve as a model that environmentally and socially responsible businesses can also be profitable.” Stonyfield (www.stonyfield.com), Londonderry, N.H., has accomplished both – and, in the process, had 85 percent of its stock purchased by France’s Groupe Danone. Still, Stonyfield Farm remains a leader in corporate and environmental responsibility.

Stonyfield’s web site has as much about organics, wellness and the environment as it does about the company’s products. Its environmental mission is at the core of the company’s activities, and has been the catalyst for several high-profile projects, the latest being Climate Counts, a collaborative effort to bring consumers and companies together in the fight against global climate change.

In 1997, the company became the first U.S. manufacturer to offset 100 percent of its facilities emissions. New Hampshire’s largest solar electric array sits atop the roof of its Yogurt Works. Stonyfield has invested in wind energy, reforestation, methane recovery, energy efficiency projects and solar energy and created the first “how-to guide” showing other companies how to offset their emissions. The company’s award-winning program to minimize solid waste has prevented over 16 million pounds of materials from going to landfills or incinerators (equivalent to taking more than 1,400 cars off the road for one year).

At Barbara’s Bakery (www.barbarasbakery.com), San Francisco, giving back to the community and investing in the preservation of the environment is an integral part of the company. “It is our company philosophy to invest in ‘healthy’ actions across the board, from the wholesome products we create, to our commitment to environmental and sustainable programs,” says Spaulding.

Over the years, Barbara’s has developed relationships with several ecological/environmental enterprises. The associations generally start with employees and their passion for a particular cause.

“Our Puffins cereal brand and its affiliation with the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin started with a trip to Alaska by one of our longtime employees and the instant love she had for the seagoing puffin,” Spalding explains. This passion led to the development and name of the Puffins cereal and a longtime affiliation with Project Puffin, which has successfully been restoring puffins to historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine since 1973. “We are thankful to be a supporter,” adds Spalding.

Another of Barbara’s employees had a passion for organic gardening and piloted a program with local schools to develop organic gardens as a learning tool for health and the environment. Barbara's created a 10-year, $50,000 grant to fund organic school gardens in the Petaluma School District, home of Barbara’s headquarters. The grant has funded organic teaching gardens and curricula at 11 of the 17 Petaluma schools,

The first grant went to Valley Vista School, a K-6 elementary school. With Barbara’s $5,000 grant as the cornerstone, the school was able to turn a dying patch of grass into a vibrant, child-centered garden. “The garden is completely organic and provides produce for the school’s organic salad bar. The garden now serves as a model organic teaching garden for schools nationwide,” says Spalding.

Healthier for the land

“As consumers become educated about how food is produced, they understand how their food choices impact the environment,” says Stephen McDonnell, founder and CEO of Applegate Farms (www.applegatefarms.com), Bridgewater, N.J. While believing meat is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, McDonnell and his company encourage people to eat less meat, balancing it with more fruits, vegetables and other foods.

“Organic food is differentiated from conventional food by the sustainable farming practices employed when raising it, and this knowledge is one of the primary driving forces behind the increasing consumer demand for organic food,” adds McDonnell.

If you’re not a believer in organics, the National Organic Program’s prohibitions against certain kinds of waste lagoons and the spraying of raw sewage on fields may leave you unaffected. Requirements that farmers dispose of waste in a manner that does not pollute groundwater may interest you a little. But an event in 1995 probably moved many North Carolinans a lot closer to the organic movement.

In 1995, a dike surrounding an eight-acre hog-waste lagoon burst, releasing 25.8 million gallons of waste into the New River, killing much of its marine life. Suddenly, people took notice of organic vs. nonorganic farming practices.

“It’s remarkable how today it’s very popular to be concerned about our environment, but mention that something must have gone wrong in order to create the problems, and you will be met with resistance,” says Dag Falck, organic program manager for Nature’s Path Foods (www.naturespath.com), Richmond, British Columbia. “The challenge seems to be how to say, ‘organic doesn’t pollute’ without saying ‘someone is polluting right now.’

“Nature has solved the challenges facing farmers in growing abundant, healthy and clean products. Fertility is achieved though a complex system of recycling,” Falck continues. On the other hand, “The solutions [practiced for the past 70 to 80 years] of using synthesized forms of fossil fuels to kill pests and weeds and boost fertility have been found to be polluting our land, air and waterways. The most modern, most systemized, most effective, most widespread and verifiable solution to this exact problem is organic agriculture, which has found a way to deal with pests, weeds, and soil fertility without using polluting chemicals.”

Objections to organics as a worldwide solution have centered on the claim organic yields are too small when compared conventional agricultural yields. In a 2007 article in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, titled “Organic agriculture and the global food supply,” researchers from the University of Michigan concluded organic agriculture could indeed feed the present world’s population and probably more, “while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.”

Since organically grown foods are grown without any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. -- which usually come from the petrochemical industry -- eating organically grown food also can lighten your carbon footprint by using less fossil fuel, says Jim Green, “ambassador” at Kettle Foods (www.kettlefoods.com), Salem Ore.

“It has always been our goal to make our products in the most environmentally friendly way possible,” he says. FOOD PROCESSING has often noted Kettle’s efforts at generating solar power and purchasing wind energy credits (see “Consider alternative and renewable energy sources,” www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2008/008.html). “We hope our efforts in sustainability inspire others to see industry and the environment can coexist while both prosper.”

Can ingredient suppliers keep up?

Ingredient providers now are aiding the organic processor with products that give organic foods more versatility to match modern consumer expectations.

Cargill’s organic glucose syrup Zerose (formerly known as Eridex) is a versatile sweetener derived entirely from organically grown wheat and hydrolyzed with natural enzymes. Food and beverage manufacturers can use it to develop USDA-certified organic consumer products that taste sweet and are non-caloric.

Zerose does not promote tooth decay, and can be used in an array of applications, including bakery, dairy, beverage and confectionery. “These sweeteners enable developers to manage viscosity, body, mouthfeel, freezing point, texture and sweetness, and have a non-masking flavor and transparent appearance,” says Nicole Reichert, a spokesperson for Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. (www.cargill.com).

Cargill also provides Wilbur organic dark chocolate with 48 percent cocoa solids and Wilbur organic milk chocolate with 33 percent cocoa solids, made from cocoa beans sourced from Central America. Both come in the form of elongated wafers and can be used in a variety of confectionery applications.

It’s important to note some synthetic ingredients can be used in organic-labeled foods. “Without synthetic ingredients, organic labels would be limited almost exclusively to foods like milk, flour, fresh produce and meats,” says Barbara Heidolph, market development manager for ICL Performance Products (www.astaris.com), St. Louis. Despite consumers’ interest in organic products, they won’t give up convenience, she adds, noting ICL’s phosphates enable manufacturers to deliver the foods their consumers are demanding.

“Not only are processed organic foods more convenient for the consumer, they also provide the sensory characteristics, quality and safety consumers are accustomed to purchasing,” Heidolph says.

Organics are causing quite a stir, and a bit of a controversy as their demand is increasing at a faster rate than that for conventional foods. An article published in the July 2006 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found the total content of anthocyanins to be higher in conventionally grown grapes than in the organic production. Yet, an Italian study published in March 2006 issue of the European Journal of Nutrition showed just the opposite, that organic red oranges have higher amounts of phytochemicals (phenolics and anthocyanins), ascorbic acid, total antioxidant activity and bioactivity than integrated red oranges.

So, as with many food-health debates, the jury is still out. But it is safe to say organics got a boost after last year’s food scares involving tainted, apparently lowest-possible-cost, ingredients. All signs point to growing demand for organic products, for organics is not only about food; it never was.

Note to marketing … and procurement

There are plenty of image imperatives behind organic products. Producing them requires less of an effort at reformulating than in simply finding sources of organic ingredients … and that’s becoming easier by the day.

After last year’s food ingredient scares, more consumers trust organics as a source of wholesome ingredients. Simultaneously, most companies are touting their environmental awareness. Organic products have an implied status of environmental stewardship and less reliance on chemicals, which may be equated with less reliance on foreign oil and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

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