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Signage gone amok at Whole Foods

A sign in the bakery department at Whole

A sign in the bakery department at Whole Foods in Jericho explains that the same slicer is used for organic and non-organic breads, Aug. 11, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus

Displayed in the prepared foods case at Whole Foods in Jericho was a big bowl of egg salad. “Contains Egg,” warned the label. OK, I thought, Whole Foods is a big company with official labeling rules. “Corporate” must require all egg-containing foods to be labeled as such. Despite the hilarity factor.

Then I came across this sign in the bakery department: “Important. Our Slicer is Used for Conventional and Organic Breads.”

Important? I  understand the impulse to eat only organic foods. It is unquestionably better for the environment, probably better for those who eat it. But this sign implies (at least to me) that a crumb of conventional bread is a potential contaminant, as a peanut would be to someone with a peanut allergy. Which it emphatically is not.

Michael Sinatra, public affairs manager for Whole Foods Market’s Northeast region, agreed. "The signage is not at all related to allergens or potential threats,” he responded. “It serves as a reminder for shoppers who are purchasing organic bread that the machine is not exclusively for organic, meaning that it will technically contact a non-organic surface. Just an example of us taking some extra steps for how we ensure our quality standards.”

Fair enough. But I hope that customers understand that “organic” does not signify “quality.”  

Whole Foods has one of the best bread departments on Long Island, with loaves from most of the New York area’s finest artisanal bakeries: Balthazar, Pain d’Avignon, Oven Artisans (Orwasher's), Grandaisy and Hot Bread Kitchen. None of these breads is organic. Whole Foods also sells about a dozen of its own organic breads, baked on the premises, most of which do not rise to the same level of skill.

Organic fruits and vegetables are certified by the USDA to have been grown without prohibited synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Organic meats and dairy products are made from animals that were fed only certified organic feed. Organic bread is made with organic wheat and other ingredients.

I should note that many small farmers follow organic practices but choose not to expend the significant time and money needed to secure federal organic certification. And small bakeries may choose not to buy organic flour because its higher cost will necessitate higher retail prices. It’s complicated. Organic wheat can be of substandard quality, organic bread can be made by inexperienced bakers.

Ultimately, “organic” is just a word. It does not signify quality, artistry, virtue. The conflation of “organic” with “good” can drive people to make bad food decisions.

I wish they could fit this on a sign.

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