Business Journal

Organic San Antonio

Manufacturers across the city want a piece of the growing eco-friendly food market
San Antonio Business Journal - April 20, 2007
by Donna J. Tuttle

Talk about getting preferential treatment. Last month, 7,600 pounds of certified organic tomatoes were plucked from pesticide-free California plants, packed into special storage crates and shipped to San Antonio Farms for the Mexican sauce maker's first-ever batch of organic salsa.

Arriving at the salsa manufacturing plant on Old Highway 90, these ripe fruits were whisked to an exclusive storage section of the plant. Absolutely no fraternizing with ordinary tomatoes allowed. Only after the plant was completely cleaned, sanitized and rinsed could these red beauties come in contact with the stainless steel blades that diced and mixed all the organic ingredients.

Cooked, packed and sealed into 24,000 containers of salsa that carried the coveted certified organic flag, the tomatoes were loaded into a truck and transported to the Northeast to be sold under private label Herr's Organic Salsa.

"We have to operate our organic program in a way that I am able to answer the most skeptical customer who asks: How are you going to prove to me that you only used organic ingredients, that your facility was properly maintained in an organic nature and that your finished goods can maintain your organic seal?" says Terry Bleecker, director of quality for San Antonio Farms.

Vegetable reverence of this sort is spreading across the globe as food manufacturers and producers try to capture part of the ever-growing organic food market. Higher rates of heart disease and cancer, pet food disasters, mad cow worries and an Oscar award for former Vice President Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" film have broadened the organic customer base to include more than tree-huggers and granola moms.

In San Antonio , organic food is primarily manufactured by private grocery powerhouse H-E-B through its Central Market Organics brand, which first introduced its organic salsas and brown eggs in 2003.

Today, the brand produces 170 Central Market Organic items -- including Italian soda, popcorn, tortilla chips, apple juice and crackers -- available in different quantities throughout all H-E-B stores, and more products are slated for the future, says Leslie Lockett, director of public affairs for H-E-B.

"From a Central Market Organic point of view, interest in organics is at an all-time high," she says.

Other retailers in the area -- like Sun Harvest Farms, Target, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and even convenience stores -- offer organic products for sale. Wholesale giant Costco is also doing a booming organic business, says Dave McGuire, general merchandising manager for Costco's Texas region. The average Texas Costco store carries about 60 organic products, McGuire reports, with half of those located in the foods section of the store (shelf stable milk, soy milk, cereals, fruits and vegetables) and the most popular items in the cooler section (milk, soy milk, eggs and yogurt).

What, exactly, is organic?

Organic conjures up all kinds of definitions with the general public.

"All the market research I've read says that when consumers read 'organic' they're ascribing all kinds of benefits to the product," says Jack Kelly, president of San Antonio Farms. "So I don't think all consumers truly understand what it means."

Organic is as much about the way food is produced and processed as it is about the food itself. To be certified organic, the agricultural product must be produced in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. In very basic terms, organic foods "are produced without using most conventional pesticides, genetic engineering, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic agricultural products are produced without the use of ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones," according to the USDA.

Before a product can be labeled organic, a certifying agent inspects the farm where the food is grown to ensure it meets the USDA organic standards. These agents, either state or private, are approved by the USDA. Companies that handle or process organic food must be certified, too. It should be noted that the USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.

Organic salsa or bust

At San Antonio Farms, where the organic program is certified by the private certifying agent Oregon Tilth, the company had to take a cautious approach to buying the ingredients for its first organic salsa. Tomatoes, tomato paste and dehydrated garlic all are shipped in from California .

"For the product launch, though, we're using frozen jalapeno pepper and onion," Bleecker says. "The reason: We're not sure how much to contract for in the fresh environment. If we contract for fresh, we own all those, and we don't have a place for them, and then we're stuck with them. Peppers have a 12-day shelf life. If you don't use them, you have to throw them out."

Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) organic peppers and onions offer a more practical solution for now.

"Once we establish our product line, we'll switch over to fresh," Bleecker says.

Although learning and implementing the organic manufacturing process has been time consuming, the application is not entirely foreign to the salsa maker. For one, the plant already has a kosher program in place which requires similar production standards and regular rabbinical blessing. For another, San Antonio Farms already creates a product -- salsa -- which uses all natural ingredients.

"It's not been a quantum leap for us," Kelly says. "It's not like we were taking a junk food product and making it organic. It's a natural move for us. We're ready and poised to produce more organic products as our customers demand."

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