In the Kitchen
Getting down to earth
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
Organics ranked third in the 2010 hot trends list issued by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA).
Organics ranked third in the 2010 hot trends list issued by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA). Local and sustainable claimed the number 1 and 2 spots respectively. So where does organic fit into the closely bound foodie trends of local, natural and sustainable? The competition between socially conscious foods appears to be heating up. We thought it was time to explore organics and you might be surprised by some of our findings. Here’s what to consider when deciding if organic ingredients have a place on your menu.
|Rocco Agostino, head chef at Toronto’s Pizzeria Libretto, uses a combination of organic, local and natural ingredients for his top selling pizzas.|
One key thing to bear in mind is that local, natural and organics are not interchangeable terms. The Canadian Organic Growers (COG), a charitable organization formed 35 years ago when the modern organic agriculture movement was in its infancy, sees organic as a way of life. According to the COG website: “Organic production is based on principles that support healthy practices. These principles aim to increase the quality and the durability of the environment through specific management and production methods. They also focus on ensuring the humane treatment of animals.”
Further defined, the general principles of organic production are to protect the environment, maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions, keep biological diversity within the system, recycle resources to the greatest extent possible for the enterprise, give care that promotes the health and serves the behavioural needs of livestock, emphasize careful processing and handling methods that ensures the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production and rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.
“It’s about supporting communities both above and below the soil in an ecological way, using natural resources to grow healthy plants. The core of organic is really about promoting that diversity and that sets it apart from any other agriculture, including the local food movement,” says Laura Telford, national director of the COG.
Trendy restaurant boards across the country tout phrases like “locally grown produce” and “naturally raised beef.” The environmentally aware consumer leaves the restaurant feeling satisfied not only by the meal, but by their earth-friendly, healthy choices.
These beliefs may, however, be misguided considering that neither local nor natural statements are federally regulated. Anyone can make these claims without fear of repercussions. This is where organic products differentiate in this fierce competition. On June 30, 2009, the Organic Products Regulation (OPR) came into effect, making fraudulent “organic” claims punishable by fine or imprisonment. The regulations provide standards and practices in keeping with the general principles and goals of organic farming.
“It’s not that we didn’t have the systems in place already, but we were missing that government oversight which gives the consumer a certain set of confidence that it’s more than industry self-regulating,” Telford explains.
The OPR added a governmental layer around the Organic Production General Principles and Management Standards previously published by the Canadian General Standards Board. The combination of the standards and the OPR means that consumers can be assured that there are systems in place ensuring the organic strawberries they had at lunch were indeed grown organically.
However, despite being federally regulated, the organic industry is falling fallow to its trend-setting competitors. Telford has been in the organic industry for six years and notes: “This past year is the first year where I actually saw downward demand . . . we’re losing ground to local and natural and there’s a variety of reasons for that. I think it’s because of the recession. People want to spend less on food, and because they are under the misapprehension that local and natural mean the same thing as organic.”
While the local food movement benefits the environment by reducing emissions caused by transport, a recent analysis by COG shows that this accounts for only a nine per cent decrease in energy levels associated with a product compared to a 20 to50 per cent decrease in energy levels used to grow an organic product.
Rocco Agostino, head chef at Pizzeria Libretto in Toronto, has also noticed how organic, local and natural products are starting to blend together in the eyes of consumers.
“If you go to a farmers market, you might have someone who’s a certified organic grower and then there are others that naturally grow their product, but they’re all in one market and I guess people tend to believe that everything is organic when they’re at a market like that.”
Agostino uses a combination of organic, local and natural ingredients in his pizzas, but says that flavour is one big benefit to using organic, as he feels you can really taste a difference when it comes to fresh produce.
|The Sabherwals launched Toronto’s Magic Oven pizza chain with about 75 to 80 per cent organic ingredients but found their high price point tough for the market to bear and have since brought the balance of organics down to 40 to 45 per cent.|
While Pizzeria Libretto’s spelt pizza comes close to an all-organic pizza, Agostino says, “we’ve never really marketed it as organic. I’m more of the mentality where, I mean, this is what we do. We don’t necessarily have to promote, we don’t necessarily have to highlight or point out – it’s just something that we do.” Agostino lets the taste speak for itself and the pizzeria has generated much talk in Toronto.
When choosing between organic, local and natural ingredients, he says, “As far as I’m concerned, whenever I can be organic I will.”
Tony Sabherwal, co-founder with his wife Abby of Toronto’s Magic Oven pizza chain, attempted to have an almost wholly organic menu about three years ago, which presented a major challenge.
“We really went overboard when we first launched,” admits Sabherwal. “We launched about 75 to 80 per cent organic at that point and our menu prices took a huge jump and I think we became irrelevant as a pizzeria given the fact that nobody was willing to spend $35 on a pizza. On the other hand, as far as I was concerned, it still was what my food costs really reflected. It wasn’t like I was price gouging, but most people weren’t willing to accept that.”
Sabherwal has now moved to a more cost-effective menu in his pizzerias, incorporating local and natural ingredients that aren’t as pricey as organic products.
“So we’ve found a sort of middle balance and now I think our menu’s competitive and it’s good. It’s not as organic as we would have liked it to be, but it’s a happy balance and people are happy with it,” he says, adding that organic products now make up between 40 and 45 per cent of his present menu.
The question that many people have is; when will organic prices start to come down? The price difference in Canada between conventional and organic foods has many consumers reaching past the organic broccoli and snapping up its conventional counterpart in favour of some extra padding in the old pocket. Telford admits that organic prices “aren’t necessarily related to the cost of production. Lots of people make the argument that organics cost more to produce and for some kinds of products that’s true, but the reality is that organic is a value-added thing to consumers . . . . Organic farmers fundamentally believe that we want to change the food system and we want to convince consumers that they need to support farming and the only way to do that is to pay more for food, to value it more. So they don’t want to buy into a cheap food system by playing that game.”
The argument is well worth considering, especially at a time when Canadian farmers are struggling in a field that’s underpaid and underappreciated. Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the CRFA, offers some encouraging insight for restaurateurs.
“The people that are leading these trends are very good shoppers and they’re prepared to pay a little more for what they get.”
Supply issues with organic products can also present a problem.
“At first our problem was getting farmers to understand that there was this huge demand and getting them to come on board and we did start to see increases in production, but now with the lower demand we’re actually seeing fewer producers transitioning to organic, so it’s a chicken and egg [problem],” says Telford of the effect the past year has had on organic products.
The mix of organic, local and natural ingredients featured on restaurant menus is directly related to supply and cost issues.
“It could be much more expensive and also sometimes you can’t get it,” adds Whyte. “Organic and local can be hand in glove and you may not get produce that you need in certain seasons or at certain times of the year.”
When asked about the future of organics in the restaurant industry, Whyte predicts: “I think its heading up. I think it’s a trend that’s here to stay. I think people are becoming more and more conscious of the type of food that they eat and I think it’s an important choice that will be on the menus of many restaurants.”
Now, the choice is yours as to whether or not organic products fit into your menu. To find certified organic suppliers in your area, you can contact your regional organic association or visit the COG’s website, www.cog.ca.
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance journalist based in Uxbridge, Ont.