Letters to the editor, May 2009

This article was originally published in May 2009

The cost of food

My husband and I are PCC shoppers and remain loyal to local, organic food within our budget. However, we are quite frustrated by the fact that even though gas prices have dropped (the original reason we were told food prices had increased), food prices just keep getting higher.

While we’re okay with paying for quality food, we’re spending a disproportionate amount of our income on food to maintain a minimal standard of living. I’m wondering about PCC’s take on this issue? Thanks,
— Lisa and Brian Stevens, West Seattle

Editor replies: PCC’s chief executive officer confirms that PCC never passed the fuel surcharges (that we paid) on to what you, our customers, paid in retail prices. He also confirms that PCC hasn’t raised our margins (the difference between wholesale and retail prices) since the year 2000, even though the wholesale cost of the products we buy are higher. Specifically, the cost for dairy, eggs, meat and grains increased last year (but not since) due to higher costs for livestock feeds, such as alfalfa and corn. In today’s economy, there simply are fewer “deals” to pass on.

We’ve been able to hold the line against passing on fuel surcharges and raising margins purely because our management team is managing the business better and operating more efficiently.

For perspective, Americans pay very little for food. A 2005 Census of Agriculture found Americans spend about 10 percent of income for food, while the next lowest percentage is 16 percent of income — in Finland.

The reality is that high-quality food costs more than cheaply produced food, just as high-end anything costs more to make than cheap versions. The very idea of cheap food is an illusion. Industrial factory-farm foods are subsidized while organic fruits and vegetables, and meat and dairy from smaller producers are not.

Also, the true cost of industrial, factory food isn’t reflected at the cash register; prices don’t include the cost of degraded soil and erosion, water pollution, the collapse of seafood species from overfishing, that rural communities are being destroyed by increasing concentration in the food industry, or the 5,000 deaths from foodborne illness each year, even as agribusiness fights stricter food safety measures. The real issue is who pays and when.

10 percent member discount

In the past year, my income has gone down a lot and I’m not buying large amounts of groceries at one time. Consequently, I haven’t used my 10 percent off member coupons for months because of not having any large shops (even though I believe “a penny saved is a penny earned”). I shop European-style, walking the short distance several times a week to pick up a few meals’ worth of food. Over the 19 years I’ve shopped at PCC, my grocery bill has averaged more than $300/month.

Is there a possibility of changing the 10 percent off coupon or offering an alternative discount for people in my position? Perhaps an overall discount of 2 percent off all purchases for the month or something reasonable? How about letting a person present his/her member card every time he/she shops and when the amount goes over a certain limit that month, a set discount is given — say 10 percent on $100 or something like that?

I realize it might be too time consuming to institute a new system but it would be nice to get credit for being a good customer. I chose to live where I do because of its proximity to a PCC store. I prefer to shop at PCC because of its patronage of environmentally friendly farmers and the information I receive in the Sound Consumer about the full spectrum of related issues. I also enjoy the people who work at and frequent the stores.
— Givhan Williams, Kirkland

Chief financial officer Randy Lee replies: You raise a good point that’s valid for a number of people who shop frequently or for smaller pantries. While it’s difficult to include a multitiered system in our present paper coupon system, as we move further toward developing an electronic delivery system for this member benefit we’ll evaluate the impacts of offering members some options regarding magnitude and frequency of the member discount. Regardless, thank you for your long patronage and support for the many facets of our co-op.

Food legislation

My husband and I are 20+ year members of PCC and supporters of the PCC Farmland Trust. My inbox is getting a lot of traffic from friends and family around the country (they eat locally, organically, etc.) about this HR 875 bill. It sure appears Monsanto is at the table while farmers, consumers and marketers of responsibly grown food are not.

What’s going on? Do we need to start a campaign to write our representatives?
— Melinda Jodry


I’ve been reading a lot of hysterical concern about three Congressional bills, HR 875, HB 814 and SB 425. These bills seem to be concerned with tracking the sources of food contamination and upgrading inspections.

Many say they’ll cause the end of organic farming and even threaten backyard veggie growers. I’ve read the SB and it doesn’t mention anything that sounds bad to me. Since I’ve not seen any articles in the Sound Consumer about this, I wonder if you don’t consider them a threat?
— Karyn Michael, PCC member, Kirkland

Editor replies: You’re right; I’ve received scores of emails and calls about several bills involving our food system. We appreciate that well-intentioned people are paying attention but dismayed by the failure to vet them sensibly before sending alarmist emails through listservs that spread misleading information like a virus.

HR 875, the “Food Safety Modernization Act,” sparked wild and unfounded claims that it could make backyard gardens illegal, end farmers’ markets and organics, establish an animal ID program, and violate the 10th Amendment! There’s no language in the bill that would do any of those things. HR 875 is meant to improve the safety of foods sold in supermarkets.

It is supported by our own local Rep. Jim McDermott, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and others with strong progressive records on farmers markets, organic farming, and local food. It’s also supported by all the major consumer and food safety groups, such as the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, and Safe Tables Our Priority. No large agribusiness companies have expressed support for this bill. One of PCC’s board members, an environmental attorney, says HR 875 seems aimed primarily at adulterated and mislabeled foods and applies only to food “shipped in interstate commerce.”

HB 814, the “Tracing and Recalling Agricultural Contamination Everywhere Act,” potentially could lend support for a National Animal Identification System, which concerns PCC and many independent famers. (See Animal ID does not address causes of disease or contamination, page 12, PCC Sound Consumer, May 2009.) On the other hand, 814 provides for traceability of foods from farm to retail, and agribusiness probably will fight such traceability tooth and nail. As for SB 425, the “Food Safety and Tracking Improvement Act,” it would instruct the FDA to establish a mechanism for national trace-back during food recalls. It exempts farms and restaurants and does not create barriers to organic and family farmers.

Bottom line: We have real problems to worry about, so why waste energy on made-up ones? Some food safety legislation is likely to be voted on soon but whatever it is, the real battle (as with most legislation) will be in the rule-making process that follows passage.

Electrolyzed water?

I’m a PCC member and read with great interest an article about “electrolyzed water.” Has PCC looked into this “miracle water”? I’d like to believe there is a simple and green product, but am afraid that if it doesn’t suds … I’m a skeptic. (Old beliefs die hard!)
If this product is real, would this be a service (install machines) PCC would support? Has PCC looked into this before?

I shop PCC exactly for this reason: a resource/folks who are on the same page as my family and who will investigate and decipher/debunk a product that sounds too good to be true. I’m not a chemist and am at a real disadvantage when discussions go to such a technical level.

That said, perhaps we’re losing sight of the basic issue: home cleaning. Maybe in places such as hospitals, airports or even a hotel/motel where certain standards of sanitation are needed, technology and chemistry can tango and dance at the level they discuss. But on the home front, soap, water and that old stuff hardly used today — elbow grease — I reckon is sufficient.

At the end of the day — for home use — I’ll stick to simple products. After all, it matches my level of chemistry understanding!
— Name withheld on request

Editor replies: There’s a lot of positive hype for this product but we’re seeking additional information before making a judgment. Electrolyzed water contains active components (oxidants) that researchers reportedly are trying to identify. Do they include chlorinated organic chemicals, some of which are toxic? We don’t know, so we’re taking a precautionary approach.

Gluten-free at PCC

I can find the gluten-free “shelf” products because usually that’s printed clearly on the boxes or wrappings but not so in your baking departments. I just assumed there wasn’t anything gluten-free so I never stopped there — until one day there was a tray of samples, of muffins. When I said I could not eat those, the salesperson said one kind was gluten-free. She showed me the label-tag and yes, it said — in tiny black and white print — “gluten free.”

You need yellow or some other bright color to make the “gluten free” print stand out!! This would make a lot of us happy.
— Corinne Beuchet, Edmonds

PCC director of merchandising Russ Ruby replies: You’ll be glad to hear that we’re rolling out a new shelf tag system that will identify gluten-free products throughout our stores. You should see this very soon. Understand that because of liability issues, we do not attach labeling in addition to what the manufacturer provides with their product; they are responsible for how a product is labeled. Our own delis are not gluten-free facilities.

One important resource, announced in January, is an online database of gluten-free foods sold in our stores. The site is pccmarkets.com/glutenfree. It identifies hundreds of gluten-free products — from baking ingredients and bread to pasta and pizza.

Also in this issue

Your co-op, May 2009

Vote now — PCC annual board election April 28 to May 22, Meet the candidates — virtually and in person, Notice of 2009 ballot counting meeting, and more

Organic White House

While it’s very exciting that Michelle Obama has planted an edible garden on the South Lawn, kitchen gardens are nothing new at the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt started the trend in 1943, when she encouraged a return to the “liberty gardens” that helped alleviate food shortages and promote self-sufficiency during World War I.

Animal ID does not address causes of disease or contamination

We recognize that concerns about bird flu, mad cow disease, and recurring E. coli contaminations might make a proposed animal ID program seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposal for animal ID would reward factory farms whose practices have encouraged disease, while crippling family farmers whose practices typically help prevent disease.