Organic Consumers Association

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OCA Top Right to Know Grocer Spotlight: Sundance Natural Foods

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, our Millions Against Monsanto page and our Oregon News page.

When it comes to GMOs, Sundance Natural Foods couldn’t be more clear with their store policy:

“No product that is known to contain GMOs will ever be introduced in our store as a new item. Products which are currently on our shelves and contain suspect ingredients are thoroughly evaluated, and to the best of our ability we pursue verification from manufacturers about the nature of their products, and we remove products unless verification of non-GMO status is obtainable.”

This no-nonsense approach to non-GMOs stems from a phrase that Sundance’s grocery manager and GMO expert James Mattravers says is the store’s source of inspiration and guidance: “Individuals nourishing community nourishing individuals.”

GMOs? They don’t nourish people or community. So they’re out.

Sundance Natural Foods is based in Eugene, Ore., at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. The region is home to what Mattravers describes as “some of the best certified organic farms and farmers in the country.”

And Sundance does all it can to support the region’s local farms and farmers.

Just ask Sharon and Jim Blick, who operate Living Earth Farm, a small diversified CSA farm 15 miles west of Eugene. The Blicks use organic production methods, though because of their small sales volume they’re not certified. Eggs are the only product they can sell to retail stores. But they face challenges because their egg supply fluctuates significantly throughout the year.

“I love Sundance Natural Foods,” says Sharon Blick. “As my first retail account they’ve been so patient and supportive in being flexible about accepting whatever I can provide. They keep space on their shelves whether I have a large or a small delivery.” (More on Living Earth Farm here, and here).

Customers love Sundance, too, if local Yelp reviews are any indication. One happy customer recently posted this glowing review:
“My favorite health food store in town!! Not only do they have the most beautiful looking produce you have ever seen but they also have a very high standard for what they order, which companies they order from, and the ethics of those companies. I know for a fact that the owners research where the food is coming from and the practices of the companies, and if they are using questionable ingredients or using questionable practices, this place will no longer carry their products. I love that. I know that I can trust the products.”

Sundance’s highly acclaimed produce department is 99.2 percent certified organic. The rest comes from wild-crafted plants. Sundance’s prepared foods, consisting of soup and salad bar, hot buffet table and a grab-and-go case, are entirely vegetarian, mostly vegan and feature many raw foods. Ingredients for all prepared foods feature a wide variety of local products that are 95 percent or more organic.

Closely linked to the store’s “Individuals nourishing community nourishing individuals” mission, is its commitment to protecting the health of customers. “Sundance practices and promotes the ethos of ‘Gatekeeping,’” Mattravers said. “We believe we have a moral and practical duty to educate our community about all issues surrounding the responsible production and sustenance of local, national and global food markets and agriculture, and to protect our food supply from those who would compromise and destroy it for profit.”

Sundance’s buyers use the following guidelines for selecting products:

    •Health: We endeavor to provide healthy alternatives to the fare found at the average American grocery store.

    •Ahimsa: We try to select products on the basis of their harmlessness. For instance: Organic over commercial to spare our topsoil and to not contribute to toxic degradation of the environment or our bodies; products from organizations that pay livable wages to workers and/or are not engaged in unscrupulous or immoral activities; products using reusable or recyclable materials.

    •Bioregionalism: We give preference to products from local farms and businesses in order to support our community and to minimize our carbon footprint. Whenever possible we select the products of small businesses over those of large ones.

On GMOs . . .

Q. When did your store decide to take action to protect your customers from GMOs?

Sundance has, as a result of our proactive support for the National Organic Program (NOP) and local and regional producers, taken steps to limit and remove GMOs from our products and shelves since the very early development of the GMO issue. GMOs are a threat to our food supply and our way of life. We’ve done our best since the inception of GMOs to pursue continuing education and resistance to this pernicious presence.

Q. How did your store's GMO education, labeling and purchasing policies and practices come about?

Our purchasing practices follow the general ethos and philosophy of the business, which is reflected in one of our core operational concepts: “Ahimsa,” a Sanskrit word which communicates the ideal to “do no harm.” This principle compels us to seek out products that do no harm. We choose to support Organics for many reasons, and in the context of Ahimsa, we do so to spare the topsoil from the harm caused by the toxic and petrochemical transfusions of conventional chemical agriculture. Likewise, as soon as enough information was available regarding GMOs (primarily during the trial and research phases of development), it became quickly apparent to us that this was a technology and practice diametrically opposed to our core values of supporting, nourishing and sustaining our local, regional, and global communities and means of food production. As outlined in our Staff Handbook, our core beliefs provide us with a framework that requires us to look beyond the marketability or dollar value of products, and instead focus on the degree to which they adhere to our most fundamental principles: Does this product/process sustain and nourish or does it harm?

Our philosophy precludes us from supporting much less selling GMOs, so our labeling policies have remained rather simple: Instead of labeling products that could potentially be contaminated with GMO ingredients, we track down the manufacturer, contact them and attempt to follow the product down the supply chain until either a manufacturer or our own research can confirm for us the cleanliness of an ingredient or product. In the absence of that confirmation or reasonable certainty, we replace the product with a better, cleaner alternative. Our customers have been great responders over the years to this policy, so much so that part of our educational outreach is to continue to insist they read the labels and ingredients, despite how confident they are in our store’s product selection.

Q. What has been the most difficult aspect of keeping GMOs out of your store?

It isn’t limited to just one challenge. Our wholesale support for the NOP helps us in our purchasing strategy. Anything that is not certified organic is immediately scrutinized. But there are issues ranging from deceptive manufacturers, an industry which supports GMO usage and cultivation (as well as certain deceptive practices of their own), lack of education and awareness of key, critical concepts and facts among not just consumers but retailers, industry and governmental officials, and the biotech companies themselves that can figuratively throw money at a problem until it goes away. I believe that our purchasing and store philosophies prevent 99 percent of situations in which we would be concerned that a product we had brought in was at risk for GMOs. It’s the older, grandfathered products that have been on our shelves for years and years that have been the subject of most of our auditing and review efforts.

Q. What do you think about GMOs and livestock feed as they relate to your local and regional meat and dairy producers?

  This is an area that is regularly overlooked by retailers and consumers. The debacle created when Organic Valley, Whole Foods and Stonyfield Farm supported the “co-existence” bargain regarding GM Alfalfa made with Monsanto in the early part of 2011 is a great example of why this is such a huge issue. Numerous studies have demonstrated the ability of GMOs to leap from their genetic host organisms to other species; bt toxin and glyphosate-resistant genes have been found in the gut bacteria of multiple species, including humans, other mammals, birds, etc. These transgenes have been verified to survive digestion. As we strive to avoid GMOs in our produce diets, and avoid GMO oils, corn and soya in packaged goods, we may be missing the fact that not being just as assiduous about our meat, dairy, poultry, and egg selection could have equally devastating consequences for our health and planet.

Sundance takes the feed and natural resources available to our dairy and egg producers (Sundance does not sell meat or poultry products, with the exception of some tuna and organic chicken broths) very seriously. We ask for verification of feed for the hens of local vendors bringing us eggs, and we sell only organically certified milk (the raw goat milk from a local dairy being the only exception). Unfortunately, laws can’t defeat nature, and at any point in time an organically raised, grass-fed and free range milk herd can be compromised by a field of GMO crop from even several miles away. At that point, there is very little that will prevent the contamination of this resource by genetically engineered crops. In many ways, the problems presented with this and similar scenarios are more challenging to address, as the ability of producers to provide guaranteed verification of their products are compromised by the lengthy and difficult-to-track chain of production. Thankfully, our local producers are also acutely aware of these issues, and are passionate about safeguarding their flocks, just as we are of ours (the difference for us between birds and humans being not much at all).

Q. Please share a few stories about your success in persuading manufacturers to remove or replace GMO ingredients in their products.

One success is that many of our local manufacturers and producers have become as passionately engaged with this issue as we are. Others, especially new manufacturers, are open to educational outreach and take our position and our guidance seriously. We also are blessed to have so many wonderful local and regional distributors willing to source organic and non-GMO products, not just for our purchase as a retailer, but also as supply for many of our local vendors. The ability for us to tell a manufacturer, local or otherwise, that we like their product but require them to source organic or non-GMO verified inputs has been a very validating process. Once we bring this up, there are some suppliers we never hear from again. But the serious ones, the ones who care about food, people and the planet as we do, change their inputs and sourcing every time. This helps us determine just which vendors are appropriate for our business and customers, given our resistance to profit before people.

Q. What customer feedback have you received about your GMO policies and practices?

On the whole, it has been overwhelmingly positive. Our customers rely on us to do the due diligence required to offer them the cleanest, most nutritious foods that we can. Part of that process includes a constant dialogue between us as retailers, the consumer and manufacturers. The gratitude of our customers for the work that we do validates our commitment to what we do, and the philosophies that we espouse. Very few customers hold on to a product, even one they feel strongly about,  once we lay out for them our opinion and research, and convince them that we have their best interests at heart. Through these efforts I believe we continue to raise the bar for standards within this industry, and as we educate more customers on a continual basis we discover that the groundswell of support only grows. Rare is the customer that walks through our doors, and after a conversation with any one of our passionate and educated staff, believes that GMOs belong in foods.   

Q. What tools could OCA or the natural foods industry provide that would help you and other grocers keep GMOs out of the food supply?

The toolkit for going GMO-free for retailers is a great resource. Continued pressure and educational opportunities are the best way to create the grassroots support necessary to change policy, whether we’re talking locally, nationally or globally. Support and awareness for the NOP, and even the non-GMO Verified Project, are important as both are great resources for providing alternative product sourcing. Manufacturers, once they reach a large size, are typically moved more by consumer demand and response than by the health, sustainability or ethical imperatives for removing these products and food crops from our food supply.

Non-profit organizations which are ready and willing to table outside of grocery stores or engage in community-based education and awareness outreach are a huge asset to retailers. And the more support retailers have, the more effective we will be in changing the industry. So much of the issue regarding GMOs is tied to the ability of organizations and retailers to change the dominant paradigm, and to re-empower citizens to take an active part in our democratic process and to speak truth to power; whether that power be a large corporation, the USDA and FDA, or the food and retail industry in general. If we can change the narrative, then we can change the world.

Q. What would you like to tell other grocers thinking about taking products with GMO ingredients off their shelves?

“Do it!” is what I would say to those retailers considering removing GMO or at-risk products from their shelves. More important, I would tell them that we have an ethical and practical duty to safeguard our food and planet. If we continue to compromise it for short-term gains and profit, we lose everything. If toxic super weeds choke out our fields, it won’t really matter whether the crops we plant contain GMOs or not. We won’t be able to plant at all. And once-fertile, arable land will become weed and pest deserts. When health problems become so widespread as a result of exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides, and our gut bacteria are functioning as pesticide factories, this conversation will become irrelevant. An old colleague of mine once said “Really, it all does really come down to food.” And another, adapting an old proverb, said: “Wisdom is knowing the righteous path. Courage is taking it.” I think any sane person should find it hard to give high priority to the profitability or popularity of an item or concept which is in direct opposition to the healthfulness of our populace and planet. Once the recognition exists in the mind that this technology is so radically destructive to our health and our ability to feed ourselves, as well as the earth that sustains us, there can be no co-existence or compromise with it.

On Mission and Values . . .

Q. What makes your store special in the competitive natural foods marketplace?

I would have to give full credit and much sincere thanks to our passionate, always self- and co-educating staff. They believe fully in the values we espouse, and are of critical importance to our continued success in engaging and educating our community about the issues that require us to take such hardline stances against GMOs, and more broadly, chemical-intensive conventional agriculture.

Our uncompromising stand against GMOs, and our support for organically grown foods, has built our reputation in the community as one of, if not the, most consistently responsible and ethical retailers. Sundance’s passionate engagement with the community and our customers about GMOs and other food-related issues has garnered widespread local admiration and, we hope over time has added to the ranks of those resistant to the pressures of dangerous food production in the interest of profitability. I would hope, and I believe this to be the case, that our local community members see us as a resource for food issues dialogue and education, and that we maintain our identity as such even as much of the natural marketplace begins to be co-opted by large entities with little interest in the common or individual good.  

Q. Describe your store’s mission and values.

Sundance has many missions and values, but the most salient for us are our commitment to our mission statement, “Individuals Nourishing Community Nourishing Individuals,” and our core values, specifically the concept of Ahimsa. We strive to provide the most nutritious and clean food available to our community, as well as products that meet our standards for ethical labor and trade practices, minimal impact upon the environment (such as non-toxic household cleaning and body care products), and products that sustain local economies. Our vision is a sustainable and holistic marketplace, both within our local community and in the food and personal care industries at large.

Q. How does your store express these values through your purchasing policies?

We express our philosophy and ethics by purchasing only organically certified produce, providing an almost exclusively organic deli with organic grab-and-go items, salads and hot entrees. Our grocery department similarly strives to source as many products from organic options as possible. If a product does not meet our quality standards for organics or non-GMO inputs, it doesn’t get on the shelf. Our coffee and chocolate selections are almost exclusively fair or direct trade sourced, and are certified organic.

We support our main local distributor by sourcing organic, locally grown and processed bulk items (flours, nuts, grains, etc.). Our Chill department represents a wide selection of locally produced healthful and functional beverages and foods, with local dairy and eggs having primacy over national lines. We always source local and organic before national and non-organic, and any product that is non-organic must meet our sourcing requirements for inputs—namely non-GMO, sustainably cultivated and free of artificial flavorings or ingredients.

We are constantly working towards the removal of certain ingredients in our packaged foods, like carrageenan, titanium dioxide and others, and in most cases we simply do not bring in new products that contain those at-risk ingredients. Anything that contains a potentially at-risk GMO input does not make it into the store, and any grandfathered products are constantly under review for discontinuation.

Our supplements and body care departments similarly follow these guidelines, which include supporting small local manufacturers, and supporting wellness through natural products and processes.

Q. What are your store's goals?

Our store’s main goal is to promote healthful and rightful living through the products, resources and education we offer our customers, staff and community. We do this through stringent product standards for all of our departmental buyers, through professional development for our staff and on-the-floor education for our customers. We wish to promote our vision of clean food and sustainable food practices, and use our connection to our community to effect further progressive change in our industry.

Q. What actions can OCA take on behalf of your store and customers?

I think by your continued outreach and passionate activism in the face of intense industry pressure, you provide excellent news coverage of these critical issues. This in turn improves our ability as retailers and community members to keep up the dialogue surrounding GMOs, food and farming practices, and any number of other political, environmental and food issues which affect us all. Continuing to pressure the production and manufacturing side of the food industry assists us greatly in our attempts to add new voices to the cry for agricultural and food reform, and helps us substantiate our claim that these really are critical issues that demand immediate research, review and reform.

Personally speaking . . .

Q. What do you find most enjoyable and gratifying about the retail grocery business?

The connections that I and other staff are able to make with our customers. Most of our customers are well educated about food politics. But without an inside view on the industry, many of the critical food issues are reduced to simple talking points. Having an opportunity to answer questions with critical and factual answers, as well as placing that information within a larger narrative of how these practices and problems affect all of us, has really opened my eyes (and I would hope those of others) to the reality of food production in our country. It’s a reality, unfortunately, that places profit before people and is dominated by corporate special interests. Support for our local food scenes and farmers is critical. Thankfully, I see many examples of movement in that direction. Working in this industry and in the capacity that I do, I’m witness every day to the concepts of mutual success, cooperation and interdependency—concepts that resonate with the many young people who are embracing a “back-to-the-land” philosophy as they push back against the “conventional” wisdom about health, food, and life.  

Q. How did you get interested in natural foods retailing, and what keeps you in the business?
I fell into natural foods retailing right after college, by pure chance. In need of a summer job, while I figured out what to do next, I ended up taking a job at Sundance. It was regarded in the community as one of the best retailers and places to work in town. I was drawn to the company’s spirit of community, having come from a background of student cooperative housing, and what was clearly a drive to effect positive change in our community and world. I put in time in multiple departments at the store, working in our Deli, as a cashier, as the buyer for our beer department, before becoming grocery manager. Each step along the way here at Sundance has really impressed upon me the importance of what we do both big and small; the biggest lesson I think I’ve learned is that it really does all come down to food.

What keeps me here and in the industry is the knowledge that we are pursuing a righteous cause, one which attempts to reassert the significance of the health of individuals and communities through ethical and practical philosophies about the production and delivery of that one thing we all need, food. And it’s not just about the food itself, although that is a pretty large slice of the pie. It comes down to how these issues affect us in our day-to-day lives, the impact our actions and practices have on the environment, our health, the health and viability of our communities and local economies, and so many other examples of interconnectivity and interdependency.

Our culture’s desire for products sourced from the developing world can have catastrophic effects upon those communities and regions, yet those effects are unknown to the end consumers unless we have transparency around the procurement costs, and human cost, of doing business. Our food systems, supported by our federal government and the corporations that control production, rely on keeping the means of production hidden from the end consumer, with devastating consequences. Not knowing the content of our food, where it comes from, who makes or cultivates it, and the short- and long-term effects of all of these practices, for our homes and planet, is one of the greatest threats to our species. I believe our mission is to wake people up to this reality.

Patrick Kerrigan is retail education coordinator for the Organic Consumers Association.
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