Thursday, June 5, 2008

Keep your conventional hands off my organics!

While shopping the other day, I noticed the following sign in Whole Foods’ produce department regarding organic foods:
“Customer Responsibility
Although we at Whole Foods Market do all we can to protect the organic integrity of our products, once the decision is made to purchase an organic pear, loaf of bread, or pound of coffee, the product — and the protection of its organic integrity — passes into the hands of the customer. At this time, it becomes each individual customer's decision as to what steps they wish to take regarding their organic purchases. You may choose to:
• Bag and separate your organic produce selection from conventional produce prior to placing it on the produce scales, in the shopping basket or onto the register belt.
• Grind whole organic coffee beans at home since our grinders are used for both conventional and organic coffees.
• Please be patient when our team members need to clean their equipment before giving you a special cut of organic cheese or meat.”
I had never thought about this before, but it’s an excellent point. OK, the phrase “organic integrity” makes it sound a little too serious, but just as a vegetarian wouldn’t want their eggplant slapped on a grill right after a steak and flipped with the same tongs, I don’t want the organic produce I purchase rubbing up against produce swimming in nasty chemicals.

In addition to the above, I’d add:
- If you use re-usable produce bags, make sure to wash them between uses if they’ve held conventional produce – preferably with an eco-friendly washing soap.
- If you’re deciding between conventional and organic (maybe the conventional is the only local form of peaches available that week?) pay attention to where you’ve picked up any fruit you’re testing for firmness, and be sure to replace it in the appropriate bin.
- If you’re buying bulk, use the right scoop (this is important because of allergies too).
- When storing organic produce in the fridge, keep it in the bag or in an “organics only” drawer if you buy both organic and conventional stuff.

Are these measures over the top? Maybe for some, but not to me. Organic stuff costs a lot more, in general, at least where I live. If I’m paying for it, I want to keep it that way. Of course, then we get into the question of why not buy only organic, which gets into problems of whether organic trumps local. What’s funny is that I could actually get by on just the organic AND local CSA shares of produce almost all the time, I think, if they only had a bit more fruit. I love fruit…so until that day, I’ll be over here, trying to maintain the organic integrity of my veggies.


arduous said...

Hmmmm ... I think I'd want to see more data as to how conventional produce really contaminates organic produce.... I admit, to me, PERSONALLY, while I respect the right of people to make their own decisions, this feels a little bit over the top and like it would encourage people to waste more plastic bags. Even if you are reusing bags, washing the bags wastes water which is a resource I just can't afford to waste unconsciously here in LA. Personally, I throw a lot of stuff naked into my bag. I'm going to rinse it off anyway, right?

I think we have a tendency in the modern world to get a little too squeamish about "clean" and "unclean." Hence things like anti-bacterial soap.

I don't think it's really possible to be a total organic purist. Even if you never eat anything ever that has been processed conventionally, your organic compost often comes from yard waste or food scraps of conventionally grown crops.

I'm not saying it's not a valid argument, by the way, and I understand your point. But I do feel sometimes like there's a tendency to go overboard in keeping things "integrous" or "clean" and maintaining the integrity of organic produce comes from the same place that produces over-packaged food and those magic erasers for bathroom floors.

Melissa said...

arduous, so glad you said that...I had the thought at the back of my head that it might be a little excessive and was hoping somebody could bring it up so we could discuss.

I definitely wouldn't want to see people using more plastic bags because of this, point one.

I guess the thing about it is that I know the farmers who produce this stuff often put so much care and attention into the whole production cycle, I almost feel guilty if I don't take equal care with their product. Obviously this doesn't apply to stuff I buy at the grocery store as much, but farmer's market / csa stuff does have this affect on me.

I do totally agree that we're a bit (a lot) over the top about clean and unclean. Somehow this feels different to me though. I guess it's mostly because I don't feel like we know enough about how these things work. I found at least one article that pointed to research showing that pesticides on fruits in storage can volatize (I think this is like evaporating) and contaminate other fruits.

I also think it really depends on what the item in question is - strawberries are notoriously loaded with pesticides, while onions are pretty safe in comparison. Anything with a peel of its own seems to have a natural barrier to protect it, while things like lettuce not only have no protection, but if they're in the "drip path" of conventional produce being rinsed, there is a risk that pesticides can run off onto the organic what quantity is the question, I suppose, and that I don't know.

And I guess it's this not knowing that makes me opt for the abundance of caution - but you're absolutely right, we need to keep a balance and be practical about things.

arduous said...

Thanks for pointing me to that study. It is interesting, and it does bring up a good point. Though given that the contamination was between .1ppm and .65 ppm and fruit can have a contamination of .5ppm and still be classified as organic, I'm not sure how high the level of risk is.

Again, I think you make a good point about different fruits and their relative imperviousness to pesticides, but I'd still caution for balance. What we really want to do is assess the risk: what is the risk of .65 ppm of DPA. I'm not a scientist, or a doctor, I don't know the answer. But I do know I've eaten my share of conventionally grown strawberries in my life, and so far, I'm okay....

Let me give you an example that pertains to the strawberries. I buy my strawberries from the farmers' market, and then return the baskets to the market. Now, I don't buy strawberries with sprays, but the farmer isn't to know that. If everyone suddenly demands the integrity of the baskets, that could cause farmers to be unwilling to take back baskets, because what if they came from conventional strawberries and contained some whiff of contaminents that didn't get washed off?

But like I said, I completely see your viewpoint, and you're right that if you pay the price for organic, it hardly seems ideal to then potentially get conventional contaminants. It's just very easy for us to worry about things that contain very low risk, so I think it's good for us to step back and say, what really IS at stake here? What IS the risk? It would be interesting to hear a doctor or scientist's take.

Willow said...

I think I would be more concerned about the germs that the various hands that touch the produce have been exposed to. As a kindergarten teacher, I see a lot of 'germ sharing' and I think I'm getting a little weirded out by the 'dirty touching'.

Theresa said...

Won't it be nice when food is just food again, and can bump up against other foods all nice and cozy, without having to worry about herbicides and pesticides and such?

Robj98168 said...

LOL I once got a whole bunch of tater's from my roommates parents- and he wouldn't eat them BECAUSE they had dirt on them. Of course I had to tell him he has had worse things in his mouth. But really- just wash the damn potato!

Melissa said...

arduous - I think you are right about reusing baskets and such. Wouldn't it be easier if everyone just grew our food in a responsible manner in the first place, without all the chemicals and crap? Then we could stop worrying about all this nonsense - and like Theresa says, our food could all just snuggle up together :)

Willow, you are absolutely right. There is a famous story in our family of my mom's friend who saw a lady come out of the bathroom in the grocery store, not wash her hands, and go straight to the produce aisle and start touching all the apples. Said friend followed her and asked her to stop touching the fruit since she hadn't washed her hands! I bet she didn't do that again anytime soon!

Rob, does your roommate know how potatoes are grown?? Like, that they're actually roots? That's pretty funny!!