Letters to the editor, December 2012

This article was originally published in December 2012

Can America go organic?

I’m Shawn, a 10th grader who just recently visited one of your stores on a school tour, where I learned that less than 11 percent of America’s produce is organically grown. Do you believe it is possible that America can have 100-percent organically grown food?

Though most of today’s society knows that organic food is better for you, some people just can’t afford organic. Why would I spend $7.99 for something organic when I could be paying $4.99? Another problem I foresee is that most major food corporations are very controlling and (maybe?) more controlling than the Food and Drug Administration. Is it harder (more time, less profit) for farmers to grow organically? I believe it’s possible to grow 100 percent organic, but is it realistic?

I love what your store does for the community around the Northwest, and I hope you want to expand bigger, opening stores not only in the Northwest but all around America. I was really inspired by visiting your store. Thanks,
— Shawn

PCC replies: Going 100 percent organic is not only possible but essential. It’s naive to think humans can keep deliberately dumping fungicides, insecticides and herbicides (and the genetically engineered seeds that increase their use) into our environment without paying for it in ways more costly than dollars.

A four-year study sponsored by the World Bank and 61 governments, called IAASTD, determined that ecological (i.e. organic) methods of food production are not only the most environmentally sustainable but also the best way to feed a growing population and address the factors causing civil unrest around the world. Organic yields can match or exceed conventional yields, and continually improve soil and use less energy. A side-by-side, long-term comparison study found non-organic, synthetic-based farming produces 40 percent more greenhouse gases.

About cost: the prices paid at checkout don’t reflect the true cost of non-organic farming. Factor in the cost of impoverished soils, polluted water, diminished seed diversity, and the cost to health from a polluted environment, and organic would be cheaper. We pay one way or another. The issue is who pays, and when.

GMO labeling initiatives

The loss of Prop 37 is bad news, mostly for the folks who shop in commercial supermarkets, Whole Foods and other “natural” food stores that don’t have the commitment to scrutinize the products they carry like PCC.

The commercial market consumer reads labels but is too trusting of what is on the label.

In this current economy, where everyone is trying to make every dollar count, the shopper is sometimes willing to compromise on ingredients, figuring how bad can it be? That’s a dangerous gamble, in my humble opinion.

Hard to know how our own I-522 will fare. It may come down to who spends the most, but I’d like to think Washingtonians are more educated and/or willing to do the homework required — or just plain are more picky about what they put in their mouths.
— Virginia Southas

Post signage by GMO foods?

I read your cover story on genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling initiatives (October 2012) and really appreciate the good work. The sidebar (“Opponents of GMO labeling”), however, was profoundly disappointing for anyone who remembers co-ops were started as much to move society in a more sustainable direction as to be able to buy products we like. The hopes for our survival into the next century are dim enough, without giving up our values by supporting the planet’s enemies so we don’t (heaven forbid) risk taking away someone’s favorite product.

What appeared at first as a noble effort (informing people of who we’re up against in the fight to know what corporations are dosing us with), turned out to be a weak rationalization for a policy that seems fear-based (fear of alienating customers by eliminating products they like), and a cynical underestimation of the capacity of members to care much about the critical issues involved.

If you must support those heinous companies by stocking their products, at least inform people in a highly visible manner that they’re voting against themselves and us all with their purchase of those products. You don’t have any signs up explaining the issue. That makes the argument worse than weak. It’s disingenuous to talk of “informed choice” while providing no information (except in Sound Consumer, which people aren’t seeing when they grab a Gardenburger).

Please consider the real possibility that people would be okay with adjusting to finding alternatives to the products owned by companies committed to our destruction. I would feel empowered rather than offended.
— Greg Vinson, longtime member


I don’t have an issue with PCC, but with food labels in general. I started researching “healthy” oils and soon found most terms on a label are meaningless! The term “cold pressed” has no legal standard. Neither does “raw,” “extra virgin,” or even “locally grown.” You get the idea.

I’ve been to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration site and there is no list of words for food labels that do, or don’t, have a legal standard. “Organic” is about the only word that has set standards.

The California Olive Oil Association has a set standard for the term “extra virgin” for oil produced in that state. Other than that, I’m still searching for a reference that can inform me about labels.

Do you have any references or knowledge you can share? Is there some label lingo I should know?
— Cheryl Jones

PCC replies: It seems you perceive the problems with U.S. food labeling laws very clearly! Of all the ones you cite, organic and extra virgin are the only “eco-labels” with statutory weight. “Locally grown,” “healthy” and “natural” are the most misleading since a manufacturer can use them pretty much at will despite what’s in the product or how it was produced.

Shoppers are becoming savvier — especially about use of the term “natural,” as evidenced by numerous class-action lawsuits. The Food and Drug Administration has stated what it considers “not natural” but it has not defined what is “natural” — we suspect because any effort to regulate such a lucrative marketing term would cause an uproar by those who might be cut out. You may wish to read our cover story from October 2011, What does Natural mean?.

Hybrids increased gluten?

I read somewhere that one reason so many more people are reacting to gluten may be that wheat used to contain 3 percent gluten but today, because of hybridization, the gluten content is now 50 percent. Supposedly, high gluten content increases the “bakeability.”
— Jeannie Moskowitz

PCC replies: It’s true that gluten adds to the elasticity of dough for rising. It’s also true the levels of gluten in wheat can be higher today than the original heirloom varieties.

The reason? Modern white and hard red wheats have been bred over the past 70 years to accommodate industrial agriculture — for high yields, easy threshing, high protein and high gluten to make fluffy breads such as Wonder Bread. But today’s wheat actually contains about 10-20 percent gluten, not more. Ancient grains such as emmer, spelt, kamut and barley are closer to their original genetic makeup than modern wheats and tend to have lower gluten levels.

Another theory explaining the increase in gluten sensitivity is that we simply are eating too much gluten. Some think that if we diversified our diets more, we would have fewer problems with wheat (or any) intolerance. A third popular theory is that we’re more susceptible to food intolerances because our immune systems are out of whack due to the relatively sterile environments we live in today.

We’re seeing a return to some ancient varieties of wheat. They turn out sweet, nutty quick breads and pastries, and can be used in bread recipes with some tweaking.

Whole-grain bread

We’re longtime co-op members with major concerns about our daily bread. Several years ago, we contacted PCC about our difficulty finding fresh, rustic bread locally made from organic whole grains — unsliced, so it would keep well. Essential Baking Co. came out with its hearty, tangy, delicious Pain du George loaf not long after, made from only three wholesome ingredients: organic whole wheat flour, water and sea salt.

Last June, the label still listed only three ingredients, whole wheat first. But soon after, we started noticing George didn’t seem so hearty and wasn’t keeping as well. With no notice to consumers or front label changes, which still boldly proclaims “Organic Whole Wheat,” whole wheat is now the second of four ingredients, with unbleached wheat flour listed first. Also, the new “Whole Grain Council” seal distracts health-conscious consumers from the fact that we’re buying bread without whole grain as even the first ingredient.

Looking recently for a replacement whole grain option at PCC, we stumbled across another disappointment, besides finding that there aren’t any. Another Essential bread sold under PCC’s label seemed like a good choice, since “Vollkorn” means “whole grain.” But the first ingredient in Vollkorn is plain old wheat flour.

We remember when Essential started out here in Fremont, and it has been trusted partners with PCC for years. Now our confidence is shaken in Essential to provide honest products, and in PCC’s info and selection, which we need to make good dietary choices. Thanks for working to remedy the situation ASAP.
— Beckey Sukovaty and Toby Thaler

PCC replies: The flour for Essential’s original Pain du George hasn’t been available for about a year, so you were correct about the labeling and Essential has corrected the error. Everything else on the label is correct. Essential also says it’s looking into making several new whole-grain breads.

In the meantime, there are many whole-grain breads at PCC from Dave’s Killer Bread, Bread Garden, Old Mill, Food for Life, Rainier, Franz, Rudi’s and One Degree. Just look at the first ingredient to make sure it’s whole grain. The first one listed should be whole wheat flour, whole spelt flour, or another “whole” grain. “Wheat flour” is not the same as “whole wheat flour.” There are no restrictions against labeling a product on the front as “made with whole grains,” even if whole grain is not a major ingredient.

The Whole Grain Council stamp that you cite offers two seals: one is the 100 percent whole grain seal. The other indicates a minimum amount of whole grains per serving. (“Contains __ g whole grains”), meaning the product contains both whole grain and refined grain ingredients.

Also in this issue

Soil & Sea: reports from our producers

Learn how labor shortage affected Washington’s apple crop, and why it was a bad season for Northwest wild mushrooms. Also: why are popcorn prices rising while the growth of meat consumption slows?

Alternative flours for holiday baking

Most recipes for holiday baked goods call for plain, white flour. But we encourage you to experiment with PCC’s vast selection of alternative flours — in packages or in bulk, many gluten-free.

PCC Board of Trustees report, December 2012

Celebrating National Co-op Month and the International Year of the Co-op, Board report, Board meeting, and more