Have you ever wondered, like I have, about the words “fresh,” “organic,” and “conventional” – what do these words ‘really’ mean and how beneficial or harmful are each of these types of produce?
Fresh – or is it?
“In supermarket terms, “fresh” refers to foods that spoil faster than others. It does not mean that foods were picked earlier that day, or even that week” (Nestle 2006, p. 28). Freshness is a matter of degree and how well the ‘cold chain’ was maintained from the moment a fruit or vegetable was picked until it was purchased by you. Most produce moved across the country by truck [some small weight items, like herbs, might be flown, and of course, most produce is flown to Hawaii], and to get a basket of strawberries from California to New York, for example, can take from a week to 10 days. “For a large supermarket chain with its own distribution system, broccoli undergoes a journey like this: farm, local warehouse, regional distribution center, refrigerated truck, regional distribution center at destination, another truck, local supermarket, backroom stocking area, floor, and finally shelf. Even if the broccoli is kept cold throughout this odyssey (hardly likely with all those transfers in and out of trucks and warehouses), it isn’t going to be my idea of fresh by the time I buy it or eat it” (Nestle 2006, p. 27-8). The cold chain is not the only issue that affects the quality of produce; even “fresh” produce is often subjected to processing before it reaches a supermarket shelf. “To allow them to endure transportation, bananas and tomatoes are picked while still green, then chilled, warmed, and treated with gases to make them ripen. Bagged vegetables and salads have been washed and cut, subjected to “modified atmosphere packaging” (which changes the proportions of oxygen and carbon dioxide to delay spoilage), and sometimes treated with preservatives. Thus, “fresh” is relative. The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] indicates that “fresh” foods have to be raw, and never frozed or heated, and with no added preservatives. But even “fresh” produce may be subjected to processing before they are placed on a supermarket shelf. “In supermarket terms, “fresh” refers to foods that spoil faster than others. It does not mean that foods were picked earlier that day, or even that week” (Nestle, 2006, p. 28).
There has been lots of discussion recently about the number of miles food has to travel from farm to table, and with a focus on ‘buy local.’ One reason for this focus on buying locally grown produce [which has its own definitional problems; how is ‘local’ defined and who decides?] has to do with factors such as the social and environmental costs of commercial food production: the pollution of farmland or water supplies, in health care for farm workers, or in depletion of world supplies of fuel oil to name a few. Food miles can demonstrate such ridiculous travel distances, such as bottled water shipped from Australia to London (12,000 miles), or baby carrots flown from Bakersfield, California to a Norway McDonalds (7,000 miles), or the same carrots in a KaDeWe store in Berlin (6,000 miles).
The European Union requires labeling of foods from country or place of origin, and the U.S. passed a law in 2002 that also required country-of-origin (COOL) labeling, although that law was postponed until 2008 due to pressures from various food lobbyists (Nestle 2006, p. 29). Knowing the country-of-origin can allow consumers some idea of the freshness of produce, and so this may be one reason the lobbyists wanted to COOL law delayed – it might mean that consumers make different choices that could affect the markets that companies had already established. One might think that COOL would benefit American produce growers as they could claim “Buy American!” on their labels, “but only producers in Florida and Western states were for it and even they joined the opposition as being too complicated, too costly, and too revealing” (Nestle, 2006, p. 30).
Ironically, “most of the time, it is easier, more reliable, and cheaper for the store (although not for you) to get raspberries from California than from down the road” (Nestle, 2006, p. 31). Even in Hawaii, where 90% of produce and other “food items” are imported, I rarely see much produce identified as “locally grown” in the ‘regular’ [non health-food stores] supermarkets. There are quite a few farms in Hawaii, but they don’t seem to get much of their produce into the supermarkets.
Organically grown: does it matter?
For many years, I used to believe that purchasing organic produce was important. I believed that organic standards were valuable, and meant that not only were organic methods were being used to grow the produce that I was purchasing, but also that the land was being treated better than produce grown and fertilized with commercial fertilizers, and that organic produce was better, overall, for the planet.
Then, I started to think that buying locally was more important, especially when I discovered, not too long after I moved to Hawaii, that 90% of food items were imported to Hawaii. Since the nearest mainland coast is about 2,700 miles away, which means a lot of jet fuel and ocean liner fuel being used to fly and boat in produce and non-perishable items. Thus, I started to focus on buying locally, not only because of the “food miles” and non-renewable oil being used, but also to support local farmers. There was a focus, for a while, by some (one of the ‘louder’ voices was an agriculture professor at a local university) to increase the number of farms and growers in Hawaii and to supply more of the produce in supermarkets, but I haven’t heard as much about this lately. Even though I preferred organics over conventionally grown produce, many farmers in Hawaii don’t have the organic ideal in mind; they are probably more interested in the cheapest methods to grow their items.
I also was rather disgusted with the fact that the USDA had taken over regulation of organic standards. Having a general mistrust of the federal government, I believed, however rationally or irrationally, that the organic standards were probably going to be weakened and/or not even really enforced or met. Then I was reading Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat in which she discusses the organic standards and her perspective on them. I found her discussion interesting and illuminating and wanted to share some of it with you.
One of the reasons that the organic industry is so important is that it is a growing market. Produce growers never have much room for increasing their profits: a grower can’t really make a tomato much differently than another tomato and significantly increase their profit. However, organics became a booming, growing industry starting around 1990, growing about 20% annually, which is huge. Customers are willing to pay more for organics, which is the main reason the organic-industrial complex has been growing. I find it very ironic and rather aggravating to have to pay more for getting less in my foods, which is another reason I started focusing on buying local. Why should I have to pay more for a food item which has less ‘bad stuff’ in it [‘bad stuff’ being pesticides, commercial fertilizers, and the like]? I just find that so aggravating! I also have read and seen research on the differences between nutrient content and flavor of organics compared to commercially grown produce: most people can’t tell the difference in taste of organics compared to commercial produce, and the science on nutrient content is mixed, at best. However, Nestle [no relation to the commercial Nestle brand] looked into organics and found some important and valuable pieces of information that have led me to re-think my position somewhat:
1. Quality Assurance International, one of the largest companies doing USDA-accredited organic certification, reported very few serious violations of the organic standards, and most violations were minor, and probably more as a result of confusion or misinterpretation of the rules rather than for more ‘evil’ reasons.
2. QAI experts believe that, in general, “cheating” “rarely occurs because organic producers care about what they are doing and go to substantial trouble and expense to grow foods without pesticides, to keep records, and to pay for inspections and certifications” (Nestle, p. 41). Thus, it is highly likely that the Certified Organic seal can be taken at face value, at least according to Nestle.
3. There is a relentless effort at weakening organic standards [in fact, see a blog post in May 2014 regarding this]. Lobbyists and political apologists for the commercial produce industry are regularly attacking the Organic Standards. Nestle interprets this relentless attack on the standards as an indication that “they must be doing something right” (p. 43). If Nestle is correct [attacks don’t necessarily guarantees of any kind], then the Certified Organic Seal does have value.
4. Pesticide-free produce means less pesticide in one’s body. Critics argue that pesticides are “safe”, citing evidence that no one has ever died from eating the small amounts of pesticide residues on food. Nestle counters this argument that “pesticides are demonstrably harmful to farm-workers and to “non-target” wildlife and they accumulate in soil for ages. If they kill pests, can they be good for you? If they really were all that benign, there would be no reason for the government to regulate them, but it does. Scientists may not be able to quantify the degree of h arm they cause, but that does not mean that pesticides are safe for you” (p. 45).
Most of us have heard about outbreaks of illness due to bacteria, viruses and parasites found in food, even in fruits and vegetables. However, the government doesn’t track fruit and vegetable related illnesses and safety very well. The FDA is supposed to regulate produce safety, but like so many other safety-related governmental organizations, the FDA never has enough money or staff to do what it is supposed to do. The FDA has published guidelines on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), but these are merely guidelines for food producers, food handlers, trucking, storage facilities, equipment, packing materials, and workers; thus, food safety really depends on the honor system (p. 48). And, oddly enough, organic farmers have to follow strict rules about the use of manure to make sure that harmful microbes are destroyed, and they are inspected to make sure they do. Conventional growers do not have to follow similar rules (p. 51)! Thus, washing one’s produce is very important. Washing may not remove all of the microbes that might cause problems, but it does take care of most of them.
In conclusion, when considering the options in the produce section, here are some considerations:
“When you choose organics, you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies – all better in the long run. When you choose locally grown produce, you are voting for conservation of fuel resources and the economic viability of local communities, along with freshness and better taste” (Nestle, p. 66). Nestle sums it up nicely, although if one reads Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan does discuss some negative consequences of organic farming, so organics isn’t as nicely packaged as Nestle makes it seem to be. However, if you have a choice in buying produce, this order might be a priority list to follow: (1) organic and locally grown, (2) organic, (3) conventional and locally grown, (4) conventional. Of course, it’s in your hands and your pocketbook!
For more information, read Marion Nestle’s What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating, as well as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.