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Shopping scared

Helen Shuler wasn't exactly sure how she could justify paying a couple dollars extra for organic pasta or soup. Usually, the 63-year-old snowbird is on a tight budget and picks her groceries based on cost.

But Shuler estimates she spent 20 minutes on the organic and health food aisle on a shopping trip this week at Bi-Lo "to see what the organic craze was all about."

Her motivation?

"I don't know what they're going to recall next," she said. "It seems like organic food might be safer."

In the past eight months, consumers have been inundated with warnings about contamination of some of their most basic foods, starting with spinach on Aug. 30.

The E. coli contamination of bagged spinach caused at least three deaths and 200 illnesses in 26 states.

In October, a California grower recalled 8,500 cartons of green-leaf lettuce because of concerns it had been irrigated with E. coli-infected water.

ConAgra Foods Inc.-produced peanut butter, sold under the names Peter Pan and Great Value, were linked with a salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 425 in 44 states between Aug. 1 and Feb. 16, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection.

More than 60 million containers of dog and cat food produced by Menu Foods Inc. were recalled in mid-March, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. At least 19 pets have died from what appears to be rat poison, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

"As far as how the recalls have affected the shoppers, it's probably too soon to determine that," said Karen Peterson, spokeswoman for Food Lion grocery stores.

But industry analysts suspect consumers are turning to organic products and other alternatives out of fear, said Jason Carpenter, a University of South Carolina assistant retailing professor who specializes in grocery stores.

The fear of getting E. coli is what has increased business for Vicki Hunt, owner of Nature's Health in Loris.

"I've had people switch to more organic foods," she said. "But other people, now they're not eating salads and not eating greens, and that's just terrible. They're still scared of the spinach."

The extensive publicity and the back-to-back timing of the contaminations could paint a misleading picture, said Jim Rushing, a Clemson University horticulture professor who works to maintain the safety of food from South Carolina's fruit-and-vegetable industry.

About 90 percent of consumers were aware of the spinach recall, according to a study by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University that was released in March. Of 1,200 consumers surveyed in November, a fifth said they had stopped buying bagged produce and half said the recall caused them to wash food more thoroughly.

But consumers should be no more worried about the threat of food contamination now than they were a year ago, Rushing said.

"It's important to try to keep the risk aspect into perspective," Rushing said. "I think it's important for consumers to be reminded that we have the safest and most abundant food supply of anyone in the world. We also have a better health care system, ... and we have a better way of tracking where these [contaminations] come from."

Even though the contamination of food is rare considering the industry's size, it's not a threat that's going away, Rushing said. The FDA still can't pinpoint the source that contaminated the spinach field.

"It's an unfortunate occurrence that probably will almost certainly happen again sometime," he said.

Rushing said federal oversight agencies are at a loss because they don't know what added regulations could prevent another contamination and, if they did, they wouldn't have the manpower to enforce the rules.

"It's a point of real frustration for everyone: for the industry and consumers alike," he said.

"When something like this happens, people want to know why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. And that's not something we've been able to find out."

Organics aren't a quick fix, he said, because there's risk associated with any type of natural food.

"My personal opinion is that I would not pay the extra money for organically produced products," Rushing said.

Hunt of Nature's Health in Loris said she recognizes that cost is a factor is many consumers' decisions to stick with traditional food manufacturers. But she said she's found the added cost worth the health benefits in her personal life.

"People need to be concerned with what's going on with their food supply instead of their pocketbook," she said.

Michael Simon, owner of For Your Health in Pawleys Island, also emphasized that organic foods often improve people's health. His store has a monthly promotion - Crazy Tuesday on the first Tuesday of the month - in which he reduces prices by 20 percent to make organic prices more competitive with traditional food sellers.

Ali Macsai, manager of New Life Natural Foods, said buying organic often means buying local, which benefits the area's economy. The store has stocked local honey, chicken, eggs and numerous other products for years, he said.

"You can be less afraid," he said. "Since you know where it comes from, you can go see what they're feeding them."

Costco's Myrtle Beach store has seen a surge in sales of organic and natural foods - but only as long as the price remains reasonable, said General Manager Johnny Matthews.

"I'm sure some is a result of all the contamination concerns lately," he said, "but mostly it's the trend. Green is in."

Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, noted the double-digit growth in the organic food market in recent years.

"It's quickly becoming a profitable, sustainable business as opposed to becoming a just a niche product," he said. "It's probably a large part of why you see our local grocers now moving to increase their inventory and expand their supply of organic products, knowing demand is building and the supply chain is broadening."

Peterson said a growing number of Food Lion consumers have been buying organic products in the past few years. That's why the company announced in December renovations to its Myrtle Beach-area stores, which will include the addition of a section called Nature's Place.

Kroger's also trying to increase its organic lines to keep up with the growing demand, said Glynn Jenkins, director of corporate communications for the Southeast.

That demand is being fueled by many first-time buyers of organic products, such as Shuler, who ended up buying organic cranberry juice as her first foray into the healthful food trend.

Thirty-one-year-old Matt Dyson of Myrtle Beach said he planned to make the switch to organic dog food after he discovered so many popular brands of dog food - nearly 100 - were part of the Menu Foods recall.

"If spending a few more dollars saves my dog's life, then it's worth it," he said. "But buying organic stuff for my dog seems a bit ridiculous."

Richard Hood, owner of The Pet Shop at 38th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, recommends to his customers several types of pet food that would likely be classified as organic. He questions the safety of additives, such as coloring and corn syrup, found in many popular brands and said he thinks there's not enough government oversight of food manufacturers.

"I had one of my customers walk in after they heard about the recall and say, 'You're right.'" he said. "I'm trying to make every single one of them aware."

Contact EMMA RITCH at 444-1722 or eritch@thesunnews.com.

Why is organic food more expensive?

Some consumers find that the benefits of organic agriculture offset the additional cost. Others think it's just a ploy to charge more for the same product.

Here are a few of the reasons organic and regular products differ in cost:

Organic farming is more labor- and management-intensive.

The organic farms are typically smaller.

Organic farmers don't receive federal subsidies like conventional farmers do. Therefore, the price of organic food reflects the true cost of growing.

The price of conventional food does not reflect the cost of environmental cleanups that consumers pay for through tax dollars.

Source: Organic.org, a Web site about the organic community

While prices vary widely for organic products, here's a sampling of some prices for basic foods:

Ener-G-Foods' loaf of bread, made of brown rice, gluten- and wheat-free; $5.08

Knudsen Family Juice's Black Cherry Juice Concentrate, 8 oz.; $3.04

Natural Value Fruits & Vegetables' can of cut baby sweet corn, 15 oz.; $1.29

Little Bear Taco/Tostada Shells' 12 Blue Corn Taco Shells; $3.07

Natural Value Fruits & Vegetables' Mandarin Orange Sections in Unsweetened Pear Juice, 11 oz.; $1.10

Organic Valley Dry Milk Powder, 12 oz. bag (makes 4 quarts); $5.62

Crown Prince Canned Foods' Chunk Light Tongol Tuna in Spring Water, 6.125 oz.-can; $1.57

Santa Cruz Apple Sauce Blends' six pack of 4 oz.-Apple Apricot Sauce; $3.88

Annie's Naturals Condiments & Sauces' Organic Hot Chipotle BBQ Sauce, 12 oz.; $2.91

Source: ShopNatural.com

# HTMLInfoBox~~Organic facts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries, since Oct. 21, 2002.

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.

Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.

Before a product can be labeled "organic," a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to supermarkets or restaurants must be certified, too.

People who sell or label a product "organic" when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $11,000 for each violation.

Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free and natural, can still appear on food labels.

For information on the USDA organic standards, visit www.ams.usda.gov/nop or call the National Organic Program at 202-720-3252.

Source: The U.S. Department of Agriculture

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