Gone shopping: I want “organic” not “natural”

Four countries in less than ten years, several bosses and apartments, and the same reflex when I land in a new place: where do I find organic food? After all, moving house makes a woman hungry.

Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, is where I currently live and it’s where the organic shopping journey starts. We are 20 minutes away from Barcelona, separated from the Catalan capital by the immense natural park of Collserola. This city of almost 90,000 inhabitants claims it has one tree per inhabitant. Under the green canopy, it seems to have almost as many swimming pools. Sant Cugat, actually one of Spain’s richest cities, is lead by a very agile female politician, Mercé Conesa, who makes smart cities looks easy and invites Jeremy Rifkin to talk about the Internet of Things at the local theatre. The streets are full of smart lampposts, joggers, families pushing prams, and fancy food businesses. But, I am not into jamón, (here is why: “Spain, towards a pig factory farm nation?”), and I look forward to the day cupcakes will become massively extinct. You see, I need to cook something for tonight.

I have been told, “organic food, oh yes!, you will find lots here”. That makes sense, after all, isn’t Spain the EU country with the most land dedicated to organic farming?

They have some in the supermarket. And check Casa Ametller, you should find plenty of natural products there plus, they don’t have middlemen!”

Indeed, this successful Catalan chain of about 70 shops built its name on the very interesting claim that what is sold in their shops has been produced or processed directly in their farms, hence the slogan “Sense (without) intermediaries”. Considering that the absorption of food profits by distributors is one of farmers’ biggest struggles, I thought that this business concept was worth a visit.

When I pass the front door, I notice products carefully arranged in straw baskets, salads recently sprayed, shinning with water droplets and true, there they are, some dry organic products scattered along the shelves (though not enough for someone who eats organic, as in exclusively organic).

“What about the fruits and veggies, are they organic?” I ask the cashier (maybe my taste for provocation). My first interlocutor doesn’t have the answer, asks across the queue of costumers to her colleague. The colleague raises her eyebrow, tightens her mouth and shakes her head from left to right.

Awkward moment.

Because I feel bad leaving empty handed, I pick up the in-house magazine and realize that Casa Atmeller has a foundation, offers workshops, including one on sport nutrition featuring no less than Gérard Piqué (elite footballer from the Football Barcelona Club married to song singer Shakira) – hotstuff.

However, more research confirms what I had suspected: the company does not really function without middlemen. That claim is false, drawing the attention of some customers, peers and the Catalan administration to the point that the company had to admit the inaccuracy of their slogan. In a vague mea culpa in April 2015, Casa Atmeller announced they would stop making this claim and instead focus on providing information around the origin of the products.

Two years after this episode, Casa Ametller’s bid for transparency seems to have so far failed. As of May 2017, the slogan “Sense intermediaries” is still shining on their Sant Cugat shopfront and continues to mislead consumers. Additionally, the company website turns out to be very elusive, for instance when you click on the “know more about the origin of our products” all I found is a video of the company’s “gastronomy technician” preparing a meal with tomatoes from the tomacotheque (yes, they don’t sell tomatoes, they run a tomacotheque). Sure, Casa Atmetller know how to tell a story, such as using the magic words “antioxidants”, “fermented food for your guts” but I want to know how do they grow their strawberries, whether pesticides,or glysophate (classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the OMS) have been used. I just cannot find this information on their website.

Conclusion: Casa Atmeller has done its research and the result is a fine marketing strategy to make wealthy people feel good and believe they eat healthily.

Across the street, lies “Super Verd”, less posh than their competitor but similarly concerned with reassuring their customers about the origin of the food they sell. Interestingly enough, a big sign at the entrance gives you details on the how and from of their products. A big emphasis is given to the proximity aspect or “km0”, which is something Catalan people are very sensitive to and that is often mistakenly associated with “organic”.

So, a tractor symbol means “this comes directly from the farmer”, a world map indicates that this is an imported good, and then my favorite: a beetle to signify that during the growing process, pests have been controlled by natural means and use of pesticides has been kept to the lowest possible levels. Going through the stalls, I am impacted by the super size of the fruits and veggies, and sadly I can’t find the beetle sign on any of the actual products.

Luckily, I now have a great network of organic food providers in Sant Cugat. I have met along the road true farmer-warriors who exert lots of time and energy to grow great products. Thank you Can Tria for inviting us to visit your fields, and for bringing your products to our cities and schools. I will share my amazing organic findings in another post.

Organic crops during an open day at Can Tria de Mata, near Mataro, Barcelona, Catalonia. (c) Dave Walsh 2017

Nevertheless, the two shopping experiences described in this post reflect a situation that repeats globally across many food businesses, whether they are shops, brands or restaurants. Is it schizophrenia, or opportunism? I remember a snack place in Brussels that had only few organic teas within the list of products they sold, but claimed “ORGANIC” with letters bigger than the moon written on their windows.

The result is a confused consumer who believes that he/she has done the job of feeding themselves or their family safely and nutritiously when purchasing “natural”, “km0” or the autoproclaimed “healthy” goods. Let’s just remind that these concepts are only marketing claims and are not validated by any legal framework, neither within the EU nor in Spain. In fact, Spanish organization VSF Justicia Alimentaria Global is currently doing a great job with its campaign “Mentira Podrida” in demanding Spanish authorities to regulate that type of food advertising.

In France, as well as at the EU level, it’s Foodwatch who is up for it. Organic agriculture, on the other hand is defined by the international Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements as:

“a production system that sustains the health of soils, and people. It relies on ecological processes, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved…”

This means, for instance, that genetically modified organisms, nanomaterials, human sewage sludge (yep that too), or antibiotics cannot be used in organic farming. Important criteria if you ask me, but also criteria that suffer a low recognition amongst Spanish consumers. Actually, only 35% of the organic consumers knows what “organic” refers to.

Ultimately identifying, questioning and denouncing false claims from disingenuous businesses is an actually fun and necessary exercise, and the least we can do while supporting those who instead take care of our health and of the environment by choosing to grow organic food.

Nathalie Parès


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