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March 23, 2006

Heading: Talk of the Table, Co-Op gets all official on us, Story and photo by HEIDI WALTERS

Used to be, I'd walk into any old grocery store when I had to pick up a few fruit-like objects to meet my obligatory weekly -- er, daily -- allowance of good-for-yous. It didn't matter too much what the little sticky label said on the apples, for instance, although if it said "pippin" I admit I'd get more excited than if it said "golden delicious."

But then along came organics, and then more organics. Pretty soon, I was picking up an organic apple here and a bag of organic lettuce there, just like the growing number of my fellow lackadaisical shoppers who, whether from budget constraints or pesticide-induced apathy (note: not a scientifically proven condition, as far as I know), had previously not thought twice about buying a conventionally grown pear. As an emerging convert to organic ingestion, I was paying closer attention to the little sticky labels. After all, who wants to willingly eat bananas nurtured with toxics? Not me -- gimme the bugs, by golly, along with the fruity pure goodness.

Still, sometimes I wondered if what I was getting was really organic, and how far the process went to make it better than a conventionally grown item.

I've been thinking about that even more lately, ever since I started hearing the North Coast Cooperative's ad on the radio saying it has just been approved as a certified organic retailer by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). An organic store? Yep, the Co-op is the first food co-op on the West Coast, and the only food retailer in California north of the Bay Area, to be certified organic, said the Co-op's Karen Brooks in a news release.

Monday afternoon, sitting at a table on the upstairs employee break balcony at the Arcata Co-op, where the odor of fresh-baked pizza and brownies floated up tantalizingly from below, human resources manager Terri Clark explained the difference between carrying organic produce and being a certified organic retailer.

"A lot of people are confused and think it means the whole store is organic," she said. That isn't the case -- if it were, she said, the certification process would have been much simpler. What "certified organic retailer" means, rather, is that the unpackaged organics in the store are stored, displayed and processed separately from the conventional foods. It also means that the Co-op has verified and meticulously documented the organic certification of its suppliers and confirmed that products labeled organic really are organic. And all 155 employees at the Co-op's two stores, in Eureka and Arcata, have been taught the proper protocol in dealing with organics. (The new Eureka Co-op store, under construction, also will be certified.)

"It means that we know how to handle organic products correctly, from the loading dock to the shopping cart," said Clark.

General Manager Len Mayer, a thin, youngish brown-haired man with light blue eyes, came upstairs to join the conversation. He said while the application fee for the certification cost $3,000, the amount of staff time involved "easily surpassed that" cost. Clark, for instance, went around the store with a notebook all year long asking "lots and lots of questions."

"I was the head nag," said Clark, a tall woman with a gentle, but definitely managerial, presence, with her wavy brown hair scooped up in a loose bun. She doesn't look "nag," but she does look official. "I had to go and talk to everybody, ask them how they were doing everything, take notes. We looked at hundreds and hundreds of labels." She and others also talked with the store's vendors, and in two instances they found suppliers who were labeling their products organic but couldn't produce the certification. Those products, said Mayer, had their organic labels removed.

After the Co-op submitted its application, a CCOF inspector came to the Co-op's two stores on Feb. 1 and 2 and wandered the aisles and back storeroom and asked questions. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the Co-op received word that it had passed certification. Once a year, now, the Co-op's stores will undergo a follow-up inspection. "But the little kicker is, at any time they could do a spot inspection, unannounced," said Clark. "And that's good."

That said, the Co-op didn't really have to change its ways very much to gain the certification, says Mayer. Like the ad says, the Co-op was already doing most of the things certification requires. "The big change between pre-certification and post-certification is writing it down: Here are the rules," said Mayer.

So, if you walk into the Co-op now, you probably won't notice anything new. But there are subtle changes. In the bulk foods section, for instance, the bins with the organics are on top of the bins with non-organics, so that conventional foods won't leak into organic foods. In the produce department, unwrapped organic fruits and vegetables are shelved apart from conventional produce so that customers won't confuse the two.

A little more behind the scenes, in the meat department, organic chickens have to be processed on a separate cutting board with separate equipment from that used on conventional meats. And in the storeroom where the back stock is kept, again, the organics have to be shelved above the non-organics. And when produce gets washed before being shelved, organics have to be washed before non-organics. Even the surfaces on which the organics are stored must be cleaned a certain way -- with non-toxic cleaners that don't leave a residue.

Even deeper behind the scenes is how the Co-op deals with pests, both inside the stores and out in the parking lot. To be a certified organic retailer, the Co-op must use the least toxic methods of pest control. Or, rather, its pest control vendor must use them.

"For example, there's a pheromone-based trap we can use to deal with insects," said Mayer. The non-toxic scent lures the pests in, and they can't get out.

"On the perimeter of the stores, we have rat traps -- we can't put poison bait on them," added Clark. Instead, the pest control vendor must use mechanical means to catch the critters, preferably live traps. "We did have some of the traps baited, before. But not now."

So why go to all this trouble? Clark said it's a matter of accountability. "I think of the certification of the store as fulfilling a contract with the customers," she said. Mayer added: "We know we sell more organic food on the North Coast than anybody else, and we want to make sure we're doing what we think we're doing."

Mayer said the Co-op sees 2,000 customers a day at the Arcata store and 1,000 at the Eureka store. He and Clark allow that the certification makes for good advertising, as well.

Doubtless, it gives the Co-op a leg up on the competition. Over in Eureka at the Eureka Natural Foods store, produce manager Juan Gagné offered circumspect praise for the Co-op. "This is very positive for the entire community," he said. "The Co-op is our friendly competition and we wish them well. When they do good, it's good for us too."

He said that when Eureka Natural Food's new store, just about to begin construction next door to the current store, is built, it will seek organic retailer certification. "It's something we have intended to do all along," he said. "And it will become more important because we'll have a full seafood and meat department in our new store. It's very good and it does raise the bar for everyone."

It even raises the bar for us customers. I mean, before today if I walked into the store and bought two organic apples and a bag of conventional lemons coated in pesticides, when I got home I would probably have unthinkingly tossed the lot of them together in the big wooden fruit bowl on my counter. Tsk tsk -- that sort of casual treatment sort of negates the whole organics thing, doesn't it?


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