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CALIFORNIA | HEARD ON THE BEAT / FARMING AND FOOD

Getting a Stamp of Approval : Organic Food Group Wants to Offer Certification to Retailers

June 20, 1997|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the $3-billion organic food market growing at a sizzling 20%-a-year pace, a California organization has spotted an opportunity to reap some green from greens and grains.

California Certified Organic Farmers, based in Santa Cruz, has for years been the primary certification and trade association for California's organic farmers and organic-food handlers. Now the nonprofit organization also plans to offer certification to retailers featuring organic foods.

The program is the first of its kind in California.

"We want to complete the cycle of verification and foster more consumer education within stores," said Diane Bowen, the group's executive director.

Bowen--who spends hours prowling the aisles of mainstream markets as well as Whole Foods, Wild Oats and their smaller natural food store rivals--said she gets "really annoyed" when a bin tag incorrectly specifies that a product has been certified as organic. However, she said, "it's a real challenge for produce department managers to keep labels current."

The new retailer certification program, introduced in March at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, would require stores to keep careful records of the sources of their organic products--both packaged and bulk--and to offer separate, well-labeled storage containers for organic and conventional products.

It would demand that stores with delis, bakeries and other in-store departments clean washing and prepping areas before they are used for organic products. If produce-misting water contained any synthetic additives, it could not be used on organic foods.

So far, no stores have signed up to be scrutinized. After all, the idea takes some getting used to, since it might force retailers to rethink store layouts and procedures.

But there is interest. "It would seem that [the program] would promote more integrity," said Ted McCaskey, manager of Erewhon, a pioneering Los Angeles natural foods store. And that would be a good selling point with food customers faced with a barrage of confusing new products trying to capitalize on the craze for green, whole, natural, organic--well, you get the idea.

Stormy Weather

The $8.6-billion disaster relief measure signed by President Clinton after some partisan wrangling holds the promise of help for Northern California farmers who suffered losses in January's floods. About $9 million will be available for tree replacement, with much of it likely to come the way of Golden State growers of walnuts and other products. Dairy farmers and other livestock ranchers are also likely to recoup some of their losses thanks to a $50-million authorization.

Growers are eagerly awaiting word of how they might benefit. Danna & Danna Inc., a farming and packinghouse operation in Yuba and Sutter counties that took a drubbing, is still hoping to prune its loss on 15 to 20 acres of walnut trees and 100 acres of plum trees that were used for prunes. Dead trees are being pulled out, and replanting won't be possible until next winter. Pete Danna, a member of the family that owns the operation, said the company has recovered $1 million from insurers for lost equipment. That leaves about $2 million in losses for equipment and buildings, not counting the drowned trees.

Pay Dirt

The Central Valley might just seem like a heap of dirt to city dwellers speeding through on the way to somewhere else, but, as of Thursday, some of that ground now has an elevated status. Spurred by a months-long effort by eighth-grade science students in Madera, Assembly members joined the state Senate in approving a measure to dub the "San Joaquin series" the official state dirt.

Along the way, partisan politics in the Senate had threatened to bury the measure, as did some potential opposition from construction interests, but it prevailed.

California's most plentiful soil, the San Joaquin series is found on about half a million acres on the valley's eastern side, from north of Sacramento through Tulare.

"When we first started out, I thought, 'This is just dirt,' " said Anna Perry, 14, a student who spoke to legislators earlier this week. "Then I realized, without the soil we wouldn't have anything at all."

The bill now goes to Gov. Pete Wilson for his signature. California joins 15 other states in designating a state soil.

Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at martha.groves@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

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