Archive for August, 2007

Uncle Matt’s makes the news…

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

From the Orlando Sentinel

Discerning consumers seek foods produced locally

Heather McPherson
Sentinel Staff Writer

August 29, 2007

Central Florida shoppers are demanding more than variety and good prices from their grocers. They also want local.

Frequent food recalls plus questionable farming and manufacturing processes worldwide are giving the nationwide eat-local movement a boost. This green trend promotes supporting local farmers and producers while minimizing the amount of energy and resources it takes to get food to the table.

For health-conscious consumer Bernadine Cecil of Winter Park, who prefers less-processed and additive-free foods, seeking local products is part of her regular shopping routine.

“I’m amazed that more shoppers aren’t concerned about what they put in their mouths,” she said.

Matt McLean of Uncle Matt’s Organic in Clermont welcomes this sort of scrutiny by consumers.

“Ultimately, it gets people to think, ‘Where does my food come from?’ ” said McLean, who owns citrus groves in Lake County. “They can come to my farm if they question the standards. You can’t do that with an import.

“It’s all about trust.”

On a national scale, eating local is “clearly the hot topic in the supermarket industry right now,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, a market-research company.

Balzer said the trend is being fueled by three things: support for local growers, concern for the environmental impact of transporting food and consumers’ constant search for new ways to look at food whether it be for health, social consciousness or simply following the next new thing.

‘Fresh from Florida’

Supermarket chains with Central Florida locations are responding to these consumer demands.

At Albertson’s, local produce is a top priority, said spokesman Shane McEntarffer. “Fresh produce is best when it’s close to the farm and handled the least.

“Local products sell very quickly,” he added.

Publix shoppers can identify dozens of local items with stickers and labels that say, for example, “Fresh from Florida” and “Florida Sunshine.” Because Publix is based in Lakeland, its buyers have long looked nearby for suitable fruit and vegetables to stock produce departments, said Dewaine Stevens, a Publix spokesman.

In 2001, they teamed up with Uncle Matt’s Organic, a Clermont farm that uses its citrus harvest to make juices. Two years later, his fresh produce was added to Publix’s bins and other local groceries.

“The Publix buyers will take my organic fruit in season over California,” said McLean, whose family has been growing citrus in Central Florida for five generations.

To show its local orientation, Whole Foods this year launched two financial initiatives to benefit local farmers and entrepreneurs: an annual $10 million loan program for food producers and a $30 million venture capital program. In February, David Rukin of West Palm Beach was the first recipient in the nation of Whole Foods’ new low-interest, long-term-loan program. This 54-year-old beekeeper was selected because his farming philosophy is in line with the environmental and ethical standards of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods.

Rukin is using the money to buy equipment and supplies to add spreadable, crystallized honey to his BuzzN Bee line, which debuted in Whole Foods stores in 1997.

Quality is of the essence

Whatever the item, proximity isn’t the only selling point.

“It has to measure up to store standards, be consistent in quality and flavor, and turn customers’ heads,” said citrus-grower McLean.

So far several dozen Central Florida products have cleared that hurdle, including Island Grove sauces and dressings in DeLand, and Granola Shop cereals and snacks in Orlando.

Whole Foods allows as much as 10 percent of a store’s products to be selected at the local level without going through regional or national approval, said Lauressa Nelson, a marketing specialist at Whole Foods’ Winter Park location.

That freedom benefited Orlando pastry chef Andrea Milner, founder of the American Brownie Co., who was discovered in 2006 at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market.

“When we dropped off samples at the Winter Park store the following week,” Milner recalled, “we thought that would be our local outlet.

“But as luck would have it, a regional vice-president was visiting the store that week and loved them,” she said. “So now we are in eight stores.”

Her most recent delivery totaled nearly 14,000 brownies.

“Orders fluctuate, but early on buyers will make sure you can meet company demands,” Milner said. “No one is going to sign you up if they don’t think you can deliver.”

Even items with exotic origins can have a local connection. Winter Park’s Whole Foods has beans roasted in Longwood at Volcano’s Coffee Bar and Roastery.

“Having the beans roasted here adds a local twist on a supermarket standby, and gets a company like Whole Foods directly involved in the local economy,” said Volcano’s president Joey Chase, who conducts regular “cuppings” at the store (think wine tasting with caffeine).

When Volcano’s or a local honey producer such as Goldenrod Apiaries comes into the store to stock product, “they are always surrounded by customers,” said Nelson.

“When you see that kind of interaction,” she said, “it’s clear more and more consumers care about who makes their food and where it comes from.”

Heather McPherson can be reached at hmcpherson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5498.

How to Add Oomph to ‘Organic’

Monday, August 20th, 2007

The organic industry has gone wild in the last decade, but you wouldn’t now it at the Department of Agriculture.

Despite year after year of double-digit growth, organics receive a pittance in financing and staff attention at the department, which is
responsible for writing regulations about organics and making sure that they are upheld.

The National Organic Program, which regulates the industry, has just nine staff members and an annual budget of $1.5 million. A Florida real estate developer named Maurice Wilder received more than that in farm subsidies in 2005, some $1,754,916, to be exact, according to a subsidy database maintained by the Environmental Working Group.

Other parts of the Department of Agriculture spend roughly $28 million or so a year on organic research, data collection and farmer assistance. It may sound significant, but the department spent far more than that, $37 million, subsidizing farmers who grew dry peas in 2005. (The farm value of dry peas is about $83 million a year. Consumers spend more than $14 billion a year on organic food, up from $3.6 billion in 1997.)

It’s not entirely surprising that organics are such a low priority at the department and in Congress. Both the agency and farm-state members of Congress are reliable cheerleaders for industrialized agriculture, and Big Ag has often viewed organics with suspicion, if not outright disdain.

But the Department of Agriculture is crucial to the future success of organics, which depends on the credibility of the U.S.D.A. organic seal.

If you are shelling out $6 for a gallon of organic milk, you deserve to feel confident that the cows that produced the milk weren’t shot full of growth hormones or fed soybeans sprayed with pesticide.

Lately, however, the credibility of organic products has been under nearly constant attack.

Hoping to cash in on the organic trend, all sorts of entrepreneurs, overseas farmers and conventional food companies have jumped into the business and are pushing the definitions of organic into new and questionable territory.

What began as a label for produce and dairy products is now being slapped on frozen dinners and macaroni and cheese, and the National
Organic Program is constantly being asked to define standards for other commodities like fish and yeast.

As organic processed foods have proliferated, companies have pushed the Department of Agriculture to approve the use of non-organic ingredients like food colorings, hops and sausage casings.

Huge organic dairies have been built to replicate the low-cost methods of conventional factory farms, but in doing so, some have skirted an organic rule that requires that cows have access to pasture.

Most important, perhaps, as demand for organic foods has outstripped supply, an increasing amount is being imported from overseas, particularly China, where regulatory oversight clearly has some problems.

No one knows exactly how many organic products are being imported to the United States because, amazingly, the federal government doesn’t keep track. But everyone agrees that the amount is increasing.

The National Organic Program doesn’t try to verify the authenticity of organics by itself, but instead relies on a network of third-party
certifiers who are required to inspect organic farms and food companies and submit periodic reports.

That still leaves the organic program’s staff with plenty to do. It must write new regulations and shepherd them through the bureaucratic maze at the Department of Agriculture, work with the organic advisory board, review the accreditation of certifiers and help to investigate complaints.

With just nine employees, one of whom performs clerical duties, the National Organic Program would be lucky to effectively oversee the organic industry in Vermont, let alone the rest of the worl“It’s a joke,” said George L. Siemon, who is chief executive of Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based farmers’ cooperative, and is a former member of the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory board for the National Organic Program. “This is a pitiful amount of money, and we are running into all kinds of trouble.”

Mr. Siemon cited a rash of bad publicity about organics that has suggested that companies were trying to bend the organic rules.

One problem with such a small staff, he said, is that regulations take years to complete because so much work is stacked up. New pasture requirements for livestock, for instance, have been languishing for years.

As for the increase in organic imports from China, Mr. Siemon said: “Maybe everything is great and maybe it’s not. But it would be great if the U.S.D.A. had done a lot more work over there to find out what’s going on.”

Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, an industry group, agreed that the National Organic Program needed far more funding. Noting the double-digit growth of organics in the United States, Ms. Wilcox said in an e-mail message, “We need to be sure that N.O.P.’s resources are sufficient to keep up with that growth.”

She said in an interview that she felt “comfortable with their work on oversight, but I would feel more comfortable if they weren’t so stretched. They definitely need more.”

Kenneth C. Clayton, an associate administrator at the Department of Agriculture who oversees the National Organic Program, declined to
comment specifically on the budget. But, he said: “Any additional resources we can get will be helpful. We have lots of work to do.”

The Bush administration’s proposed budget for 2008 calls for a major increase in funds for the National Organic Program, pushing its overall budget to about $2.7 million. The House version of the farm bill, passed late last month, authorizes more than $60 million a year in funding for various organic programs, including research and help for farmers who convert to organic methods.

Realistically, though, there’s little chance that $60 million will be spent each year because only a fraction of the money is mandatory spending.

Whether organic foods are healthier than conventional products is open to debate. But that doesn’t mean Congress should give short shrift to research and regulation of organics. The growing popularity of organic products helps small farmers stay in business. They’re also better for the environment and help ease farmers away from crops that require government subsidies.

Besides, voters like organic food better than dry peas.

by Andrew Martin

Should you buy local & organic?

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Many of you reading this have probably read recent articles about organic and local farming. You may wonder, “What’s the difference?” or “Which is better?” In my mind, I always look for local and organic items, whether it be fresh produce or other grocery items. I’ve traveled the country this summer presenting our new products to retailers, and from what I have seen, the “buy local” movement is catching on. Organic is also gaining momentum, which makes us very happy.

I think it’s great to know the origin of your food. Get to know the local growers in your area — their stories will tell you what they’re passionate about. Uncle Matt’s always spends time converting conventional farmers to organic. This summer we hosted an organic field day, where we toured our groves, and explained the organic industry in hopes of persuading them.

Everyone East of the Mississippi River is closer to Florida; hence, Florida citrus is the closet “local” citrus. Florida citrus farmers compete with those in Mexico and California. If you buy Florida citrus, that encourages Florida citrus growers to continue producing great produce — whether local and/or organic — and it reduces the “food mile” footprint of that particular item. Food miles are actually a minor portion of the total ecological footprint of food.

Ideally, we all could eat organic foods produced on local farms. But that’s not practical, or even possible. In much of the United States, you can’t obtain locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Even if winter weather were not a factor, organic products aren’t always easy to find. The organic milk, fruits and vegetables found in many supermarkets these days typically are not locally-grown. Most likely, they’ve been shipped in from somewhere far away.

Those who favor locally grown, conventionally produced foods argue that they’re fresh off the farm and tastier than organics that have been refrigerated and shipped vast distances. Even so, some organic foods provide higher levels of vitamins than those that are conventionally grown. A study published in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that organically grown tomatoes had more vitamin C than conventional tomatoes.

If locally grown organic foods aren’t available to you, be aware of the fruits and vegetables that are highest (and lowest) in pesticides. You can get a list from the Environmental Working Group, at www.foodnews.org/walletguide.php. Among the worst offenders: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines and strawberries.

Healthy regards,

Uncle Matt

Orange juice is better than lemonade at keeping kidney stones away

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

A daily glass of orange juice can help prevent the recurrence of kidney stones better than other citrus fruit juices such as lemonade, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have discovered.

The findings indicate that although many people assume that all citrus fruit juices help prevent the formation of kidney stones, not all have the same effect. The study is available online and is scheduled to be published in the Oct. 26 issue of the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Medically managing recurrent kidney stones requires dietary and lifestyle changes as well as treatment such as the addition of potassium citrate, which has been shown to lower the rate of new stone formation in patients with kidney stones.

But some patients can’t tolerate potassium citrate because of gastrointestinal side effects, said Dr. Clarita Odvina, assistant professor of internal medicine at the Charles and Jane Pak Center for Mineral Metabolism and Clinical Research and the study’s lead author. In those cases, dietary sources of citrate – such as orange juice – may be considered as an alternative to pharmacological drugs.

“Orange juice could potentially play an important role in the management of kidney stone disease and may be considered an option for patients who are intolerant of potassium citrate,” Dr. Odvina said.

All citrus juices contain citrate, a negatively charged form of citric acid that gives a sour taste to citrus fruits. Researchers compared orange juice and lemonade – juices with comparable citrate contents – and found that the components that accompany the citrate can alter the effectiveness of the juice in decreasing the risk of developing new kidney stones.

Kidney stones develop when the urine is too concentrated, causing minerals and other chemicals in the urine to bind together. Over time, these crystals combine and grow into a stone.

In the UT Southwestern study, 13 volunteers – some with a history of kidney stones and some without – underwent three phases, each lasting one week. Chosen in random order, the phases included: a distilled water or control phase; an orange juice phase; and a lemonade phase. There was a three-week interval between phases.

During each phase, volunteers drank 13 ounces of orange juice, lemonade or distilled water three times a day with meals. They also maintained a low-calcium, low-oxalate diet. Urine and blood samples were taken at intervals during each phase. The study was done at UT Southwestern’s General Clinical Research Center.

Orange juice, researchers found, boosted the levels of citrate in the urine and reduced the crystallization of uric acid and calcium oxalate – the most frequently found ingredient in kidney stones.

But lemonade did not increase the levels of citrate, an important acid neutralizer and inhibitor of kidney stone formation.

“One reason might be the different constituents of various beverages,” Dr. Odvina said.

For instance, the citrate in orange and grapefruit juice is accompanied by a potassium ion while the citrate in lemonade and cranberry juice is accompanied by a hydrogen ion. Ions of hydrogen, but not potassium, counteract the beneficial effects of the high citrate content.

“There is an absolute need to consider the accompanying positive charge [of hydrogen ions] whenever one assesses the citrate content of a diet,” Dr. Odvina said.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Source: The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

UF researchers say citrus greening can be managed with new biological and chemical controls

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Canker topped the list of worries for the Florida citrus industry until citrus greening – described as the world’s most serious citrus disease – was found in groves last year.

“In the long term, the industry can live with and manage the canker problem, but citrus greening is a fatal disease that’s an even larger threat to the state’s signature crop,” said Harold Browning, director of the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. “In other areas of the world where greening is a problem, it has never been successfully eradicated.”

The disease, which slowly weakens and kills all types of citrus trees, causes fruit to become lopsided and taste bitter, making it unusable. Fruit does not develop the desired color, hence the greening name. There is no known cure for the disease, which is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s select list of threats to plants and wildlife regulated by the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act. Greening does not harm people.

Browning said the fatal bacterial disease is transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri), a tiny insect that is now widely distributed throughout Florida, and the disease has been found in more than 440 locations in 11 counties. Browning said it’s not practical to eradicate citrus greening, but the spread of the disease can be slowed with an effective integrated pest management program (IPM) that includes limited use of systemic insecticides and beneficial insects that attack the psyllid.

The introduction of a beneficial wasp was the first step in an expanded research program by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to develop a wide range of best management practices to prevent greening from destroying the state’s $9.1 billion citrus industry, Browning said. UF researchers are also developing management programs to combat canker.

Marjorie Hoy, a UF professor of entomology and biological control expert, said the psyllid was first detected in two South Florida counties in June 1998. At the time, the psyllid was considered to be a significant pest, and although it did not appear to carry the deadly bacterial disease that causes citrus greening, it made establishment of greening more likely if the disease were introduced. Damage caused by the psyllid included stunting of new growth and sooty mold formation on the honeydew produced by the psyllids.

“When citrus greening started showing up in citrus trees across the state in September 2005, we knew that that we had a potential disaster on our hands, and that the psyllid was carrying and transmitting the deadly disease,” she said.

In an attempt to reduce populations of the Asian citrus psyllid, Hoy and Ru Nguyen, an entomologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, imported two natural enemies of the psyllid from Taiwan and Thailand. After evaluating the parasitic wasps under quarantine conditions to make sure they would be effective against the psyllid and not harm the environment, they began releasing the biological controls about six years ago.

“One of the beneficial wasps (Tamarixia radiata) is now widely established throughout Florida, feeding on the psyllids and reducing their population by as much as 80 percent in some locations between August and November,” Hoy said. “We’re also relying on naturally occurring predacious insects such lady beetles, lacewings and spiders that consume more than 90 percent of psyllid eggs and nymphs.”

Unfortunately, even one psyllid can transmit the deadly greening disease, so biological control cannot be the only tool in managing greening. Any control will require a holistic approach, Hoy said.

“Management tools that are developed should be compatible with these and other natural enemies that suppress citrus pests such as mites, whiteflies, scale insects, leafminers and mealybugs,” Hoy said. “Indiscriminate killing of their natural enemies could produce serious pest outbreaks.”

What complicates control of citrus greening is the fact that symptoms begin to show up in trees several years after the trees are infected by the psyllid insects, said Ron Brlansky, a professor of plant pathology at UF’s Lake Alfred center.

“Lack of early detection of the systemic bacterial disease is a major problem for the citrus industry,” he said. “Once the symptoms show up, it’s too late to save the tree.”

Brlansky said early symptoms such as leaf mottling and yellow discoloration may be mistaken for other problems such as nutritional deficiencies, and laboratory tests are needed to determine if greening is the problem. The disease can also be identified by cutting open small and poorly colored fruit and looking for aborted seeds.

He said the UF research program will attack the citrus greening problem in three ways by developing best management practices for the bacterial disease, improving diagnostic methods and testing the effectiveness of systemic insecticides to stop transmission of the disease by the psyllids.

Higher Levels of Vitamin C and Lower Concentrations of Nitrogen Found in Organic Oranges

Monday, August 6th, 2007

Many scientific teams in Europe are trying to develop reliable and affordable tests to differentiate between organic and conventional foods. For many crops, pesticide residue levels are considered the best way to make such a determination, but in the case of citrus, this approach is unreliable. In the Mediterranean region where most of Europe’s citrus is grown, pest pressure is low and very few if any pesticides are applied. Accordingly, the presence or absence of residues is an unreliable indicator of whether organic citrus as grown in compliance with European standards.

An Italian team explored whether nitrogen levels and forms in conventional and organic oranges could be used to distinguish between organic and conventionally grown fruit. Detailed fruit quality data was collected on two cultivars of oranges grown under conventional and organic methods. Two key food quality parameters were consistently different.

The organic oranges from both varieties contained 12 percent higher levels of Vitamin C. Fruit harvested from one variety grown conventionally contained 30 percent more nitrogen, while the second variety contained 12 percent more nitrogen. The higher presence of Vitamin C in the organic oranges is beneficial for a variety of reasons, while lower average nitrogen levels can help reduce the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines in the gut and lessens the risk of methemoglobinemia (Blue baby disease).

Sources: “Nitrogen Metabolism Components as a Tool to Discriminate between Organic and Conventional Citrus Fruits.”
Authors: Paolo Rapisarda, Maria Luisa Calabretta, Gabriella Romano, and Francesco Intrigliolo.
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.