Are Safeway organics really organic?
October 11, 2008 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Safeway: regular brands and house brands out the wazoo. It says organic, but is it?

So Safeway and other stores too have their regular supplier brands, in regular and organic varieties, as well as their own house brand in varieties organic and not.

Today we bought organic Driscoll berries, but they looked just like the non-organic ones, except for the label on the container. After watching some videos on Driscoll's site, it seems that they get their berries from a number of sources, which might indicate that their organic berries only come from organic producers. But the container and the contents were totally identical--only the label differentiated them.

Then the eggs were even worse. The best endorsement a Safeway egg had going for it was "Laid by uncaged hens." Ok, great! You take them out of their cages before they lay eggs.

I asked the manager at the register about all this, and she gave me a glassy-eyed schpiel about how she had asked the same questions and was totally convinced that the answers she got were satisfactory. But it's so easy when it's the same company that writes your paycheck...

So where's the beef? To what extent can we trust the labels and the signs?
posted by biwa-shu to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just a reaction to this topic, which I think about rather deeply. Ever since organic food markets started to "catch hold" (those of us of a certain age remember when that market was a niche market, and seemed never able to get big and diverse), I saw the usual: federal guidelines that could be manipulated, labeling that was spongy, the look, feel and taste of items that was not convincing.... all this to say "I don't trust one damn bit those foods that come at us from industrial-type food producers. Not one bit". If I want organic, I buy extremely expensive local farmer-market-delivered things (the prices here in Seattle have about tripled in past 20 mos.). Part of the age we live in: things are either fake, or dumbed-down.
posted by yazi at 8:51 PM on October 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


The definition of Organic is now enshrined in federal regulations. A decade ago, that status would probably have been a deterrence to passing off ordinary produce as organic produce. After almost 8 years of the Bush administration, who knows. On the other hand, why shouldn't the organic blueberries be packaged similarly to the non-organic, it's going to be cheaper. As for comparing the berries themselves, this is Safeway in 2008, I'd think they'd maintain similar standards for the appearance of organic and ordinary commercial produce.

As for the eggs, "uncaged hens" is an unregulated term. Chances are, if you are getting the eggs at Safeway, the hens are kept at a high density, and have probably been "debeaked" to keep them from pecking each other to bits, even if they aren't in cages.
posted by Good Brain at 9:00 PM on October 11, 2008


In order to be labeled as "Organic," products must conform to USDA organic standards. Now, will you be happy if (they let) you visit the farm and see what the situation is? Probably not.

If you are worried about it, you should check out your local farmers' market. Many of the vendors will not be labeled "Organic," because it costs a lot to get certified and it has to be renewed every year. Some market sellers get certified once to prove to customers that they mean it, and then let it lapse. When I start selling at the markets next year, I plan to have some talking points and a handout about how I am not "Organic" according to the USDA, and I can't legally use that term, but I am organic, small o, and anyone is welcome to come see if my standards are in agreement with theirs.

It is EXTRA worth it for eggs. Eggs from active happy chickens are so so SO much better. Try it once; you'll have a hard time going back.
posted by librarina at 9:07 PM on October 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


You might find this article interesting: "A bad summer for organic food". Among other interesting things:
An investigation by WJLA, a Washington DC TV station, finds illegal quantities of aldicarb, a very toxic pesticide, in Whole Foods' organic ginger. Further investigations reveal that the ginger was imported from China, as were a number of other organic vegetables sold by Whole Foods. Certification of the ginger was provided by Quality Assurance International (QAI), the largest organic certifier in the world. Since the Chinese government does not permit foreigners to inspect their farms, QAI subcontracts the actual inspections to Chinese nationals.
Doesn't that make you feel confident?

When it comes to "organic" food sold by a major chain, the only thing you can be certain of is that it's going to cost you more. You can't be sure of anything else.
posted by Class Goat at 10:57 PM on October 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


All these answers are basically why I've stopped buying organic produce at supermarkets. Take those Driscoll's strawberries: I, too, have looked at those monstrosities and said "organic? really????" They're still industrially-produced, flavorless strawberries that have to travel 2000 miles to get to me. The ginger from China is another good example. Even without the toxins, the distance it must travel basically negates any environmental benefit of it having been grown "organically."

So the answer is, yes, they are probably organic, but it might not make much difference.

BTW, farmers' markets needn't be expensive at all. Actually, they're usually the best place to buy in-season produce. Just today, I got a head of lettuce, 7 red bell peppers, a head of bok choy, and a dozen free-range eggs that had been gathered this morning, all for $10. Not bad!
posted by lunasol at 12:05 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


If I want organic, I buy extremely expensive local farmer-market-delivered things ....

This blind faith in farmers' markets is fascinating. While Safeway has a strong inducement to be honest about its organic products, due to the bad press that would result otherwise, what keeps a farmer from growing or buying non-organic produce and selling it as organic?

I shop at the local farmers' market, but I have no delusions about what I buy there being more organic/more noble/etc. than if I had bought it elsewhere.
posted by backupjesus at 6:04 AM on October 12, 2008


Those above are correct. Larger organic suppliers often conform only to the letter, and not the spirit, of the law. Moreover, as Class Goat's link shows, they cannot even be counted upon to do that consistently.

As noted, it is best to buy from farmers you can speak to about their practices, thereby contributing to your local economy and moving yourself closer to the food you purchase and consume. It's also yummier (I'd love to tast-test a local, in-season tomato next to a Wal-Mart "organic"), and often cheaper! Otherwise, a little googling can reveal which 'organic' companies have been embroiled in controversy due to their practices. I often consult this Organic Dairy Ratings Report from the Cornocopia Institute when I need value-added dairy products (ice cream and the like) not avaliable at my local farmer's market (note that Safeway is rated 'one cow,' meaning that some or all of their organic dairy products are from factory-farmed sources).
posted by youarenothere at 6:11 AM on October 12, 2008


This blind faith in farmers' markets is fascinating...what keeps a farmer from growing or buying non-organic produce and selling it as organic?

I'm not sure I understand this. Farmers' markets do have oversight. Perhaps the system is different where you live, but in Philadelphia, most of the farmer's markets are operated in conjuction with the state and the USDA. Not anyone can just join up with a crate of Dole bananas in tow. And while the costs can be high, many farmers are Certified Organic, and there are programs to lessen that cost to farmers. Also, "buy local" doesn't always mean heading down to the farmer's market once a week; it includes buying from CSAs, going to farms to participate in slaughter, picking fruit from orchards, etc, etc...all of which put one closer to the production process.

Smaller producers have "strong inducement" to be honest about their products as well. Their success relies on trust from a small number of consumers who choose such producers because they consider them more organic/more noble/etc. If anything, the barrier of investigation is lower. Maybe I'm horribly naive, but I just don't think that the Amish are cheating me into buying non-organic kale every Saturday morning.
posted by youarenothere at 6:48 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


This blind faith in farmers' markets is fascinating. While Safeway has a strong inducement to be honest about its organic products, due to the bad press that would result otherwise, what keeps a farmer from growing or buying non-organic produce and selling it as organic?

I'm not sure why Safeway's bad press would somehow be more detrimental to Safeway than the bad press a local farmer would get. In fact, because local farmers at farmer's markets have a closer relationship with their customers, they are far more likely to suffer from bad press than Safeway. It's very costly to be a small farmer growing and selling produce at a local stand, so local farmers rely heavily on a loyal customer base.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2008


If you're concerned about animal welfare, you shouldn't buy eggs at all unless you've seen the farm. And if you're concerned about how your food is produced, government-certified organic probably isn't sufficient to allay your concerns.

I recommend Peter Singer's book The Ethics of What We Eat for some great explanations of the sorts of considerations to keep in mind. He recommends eschewing most animal products altogether (for environmental as well as moral reasons), and says that in many cases, foreign-produced products are better for the environment than local food (because they take advantage of local conditions rather than using fossil-fuel burning greenhouses; plus they give jobs to the world's poorest people).

I'm not sure why Safeway's bad press would somehow be more detrimental to Safeway than the bad press a local farmer would get. In fact, because local farmers at farmer's markets have a closer relationship with their customers, they are far more likely to suffer from bad press than Safeway.

Bad press for a farmer's market seller consists of a few customers grousing to their friends; only if people actually die of food poisoning, an article might make the newspaper. Bad press for Safeway, if they're caught passing off non-organic produce as organic, consists of regional or national headlines, recalls, and a huge public outcry. I trust the latter to keep those sellers honest.
posted by decathecting at 3:47 PM on October 12, 2008


You are assuming that consumers would notice bad press for Safeway.
posted by QIbHom at 8:07 AM on October 14, 2008


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