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Success Is No Mystery for Tucson's Food Conspiracy Co-op

Ephraim Mallery
Posted 03/04/2003

Food Conspiracy Co-op is a 31-year-old natural foods store in Tucson, Ariz., with a dedicated membership base and a loud voice. Armed with community dedication and willing volunteers, the co-op has tangled with the big boys, lobbying natural foods manufacturers to clean up their products and offer a broader selection of products free of genetic contamination.

The National Organic Program has relieved some pressure. "The integrity of the word [organic] has been sustained," says Community Relations Manager Scott McMullen. "I feel good that you can trust organic." He says the same thing could happen with the word natural and with GMOs. "We live in a world of labels, and we expect to have the details-we want to know the main ingredients and if it's genetically engineered." McMullen doesn't plan to let his guard down, even with the NOP in place. Plans are already underway to become a certified organic retailer and to train store employees to conform with national requirements.

McMullen also plans to stay up to date on old and new food issues, and to communicate the information with other co-ops. "It's up to us to take the responsibility," he says. In the late 1990s, Food Conspiracy implemented a massive information campaign, writing and calling natural foods manufacturers to find out if they used GMOs. The response was dismal-only 100 replied, with several of the larger companies avoiding the issue.

As a result, many items were taken off the shelves and a new policy adopted: "Food Conspiracy will not knowingly carry genetically engineered foods or products containing genetically engineered foods." In fact, Food Conspiracy has implemented its own labeling system. From the large selection of bulk foods to the lettuce in the produce section, every item has a simple shelf tag indicating GE risk. The yellow warning label "GE?" means the product contains ingredients at high risk of being genetically engineered. Green "Non-GE" tags indicate verification by the manufacturer that the product does not contain genetically altered ingredients. In cases where evidence is established for genetic modification, the product is removed from the shelves. Natural foods manufacturers are beginning to listen.

When the popular Boca Burger was removed, Boca sent Food Conspiracy a product that was guaranteed non-GE. In the end, it's about providing tools to make an informed choice, McMullen says. "People just want to know. All we're doing is giving them that information." That kind of community service allows Food Conspiracy to compete with larger companies. In recent years, Trader Joe's and Wild Oats Markets Inc. have opened superstores with more products, bigger parking lots and greater convenience nearby. Food Conspiracy has been in the same spot since 1971, with none of the same amenities.

That doesn't faze managers and board members, McMullen says, and longtime members agree. George Milan, a current member of the board and a part of the co-op since its beginning, says "community is the heart of the co-op-it's not about price. Our real reason for existence is for our member owners and customers who like our style of store." McMullen, who has also been a member since the 1970s, says it was the newsletter that first attracted him. In addition to food news, the monthly publication covers political and environmental issues not in the local dailies and occasionally features articles reprinted from the nearby Earth First! Journal office.

Some member newsletter writers are looking at book contracts based on their contributions through the years. The bulletin board is also a community magnet, the largest spot in town to feature everything from new political and food information to local music shows, events, rooms for rent and ride shares. "We could double the size and it would still fill up," McMullen says. "It's a reminder of everything we do, why we do it and who we are serving." Making people the priority is something everyone involved in the co-op strives to keep in mind. "It's about being interrupted to go the extra mile," McMullen says. "Are we serving the interests of the community?" Food Conspiracy is now considering expansion, but in 1991, an attempt to open another store ended in bankruptcy.

Although this fact influences members' future decisions, the past 10 years have yielded positive financial results. The secret of their recovery? "Going back to the basics," says Milan. "The store that caused the bankruptcy was too big, too soon." Milan believes through focusing on the members and their needs, the co-op managed to turn their initial failure around. He says you don't have to compete dollar for dollar with the big companies. "We emphasize the pieces that bring people to us ... and compete by having quality foods, choices, education and places that feel like a neighborhood store." That attitude expands the business and keeps people involved.

Because community is the keystone of Food Conspiracy's business, the company is also shoring up for lean times, saving money through the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation. This organization allows individual cooperatives to invest money in a private account dedicated to giving money to local charities. Accumulated interest in the account allows Food Conspiracy to make donations even when times are tough. McMullen considers it a great opportunity-while it may leave less money to donate today, it allows the co-op to consistently support the community.

Food Conspiracy Co-op
412 N. 4th Ave.,
Tucson, AZ 85705;
520.624.4821
Size: 3,200 square feet
Average annual sales: 2.4 million (October 2001 through October 2002)
Best-selling departments: grocery (30 percent); produce (28 percent); bulk (22 percent) General manager: Ben Koosma
Community relations manager: Scott McMullen
President of the board: Scott Bird
Number of board members: 7
Number of members: 5,000 in membership roll (1,500 active); about 3,000 nonmembers who are regular shoppers (Members spend as much as nonmembers.)
Web site: http://www.foodconspiracy.org
Ephraim Mallery is a freelance food writer and editor in Denver.


Cooperative Grocer From #105, March-April 2003

Co-ops Take Action on GMOs

B Y L I S A F O R D

Think co-op member initiatives move too slowly? Then you haven't met the members of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Due to the powerful efforts made by a handful of persons, the shelf tags in this co-op's grocery department now indicate which foods are produced without GMOs: genetically modified organisms. It all started two short years ago when the ten or so members of the co-op's "Food Action Co-op Team" (FACT) began intensively educating shoppers about the potential horrors of genetically modified organisms in our foods. As this group began to learn more and more about the damaging effects genetically altered seeds had on organic farmers, as well as unsuspecting consumers, the stronger this group felt about a person's right to know what goes into their food.

With the help of FACT members and co-op management, the Brattleboro Food Co-op drafted their first store-mandated, member-supported position on GMOs. In this position, the FACT members were given responsibility to request "letters of assurance" from our food vendors. These letters of assurance would be used to inform shoppers which products are produced with or without genetically modified organisms. Thus, the letter campaign was begun. Over 400 letters were signed and sent to food manufactures and suppliers. And over 200 response letters were received.

These letters contained a variety of statements made by some of the most influential companies in America, our food producers. Confirming their use (or non-use) of genetically altered foods was easy for some and difficult for others. For example, the letter received from Vitasoy USA, Inc. tells us that they "carefully select only those soybean varieties that have been bred and grown through traditional identity preserved methods (IP). The IP handling system ensures Vitasoy that its tofu and soymilk products are not genetically modified." Unfortunately, other companies can only verify their commitment to some day being totally free of using modified genes.

For instance, Newman's Own and Soy Boy tell us that they "have been in the process of eliminating the use of gmo ingredients in all their products, but have not been successful in sourcing appropriate ingredients." As of today, there are two important factors determining which products earn the right to be labeled "non-GMO" on the grocery shelves of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Products receiving a label must either meet the federal guidelines for organic production, or there must be a vendor letter on file assuring us that their products are GMO-free. Both Food Conspiracy Co-op in Arizona and Rainbow Grocery in California have taken similar measures in order to inform shoppers about genetically modified organisms in their foods.

For over a year now, the Food Conspiracy has been labeling foods with green or yellow tags. Green signs indicate foods that are "certified organic, "organic," or "non-GMO." Yellow tags indicate that those foods may contain GMOs. [For more on Food Conspiracy, see the February 2003 Natural Foods Merchandiser -ed.] Elizabeth Donoghue, bulk manager of Rainbow Grocery, recently discontinued their labeling of foods in their bulk bins due to poor support from their vendors. Elizabeth explained that she was not receiving adequate verification from suppliers in order to continue their labeling system. In replace of labeling, she now only sells bulk items that are identified as organic or GMO-free on their package.

Both the Brattleboro Co-op and the Rainbow Grocery have attempted to join forces with other local co-ops in hopes of creating a more unified market voice in support of GMO-free products. However, both co-ops have received a poor reception to this idea. Simon Harris from The Organic Consumers Association complained that the natural foods industry as a whole has done a poor job addressing this issue. Simon states, "GMOs have been on the market for six years. And in every customer survey 80 to 95 percent of responders clearly say they don't want GMOs in their foods and that they want mandatory labeling." The Brattleboro Food Coop is committed to GMO labeling and believes that this type of customer education will make a fundamental impact on consumer purchases.

More importantly, this labeling will send an important message to commercial food suppliers. As shoppers begin voting with their dollars, food manufacturers will be more apt to listen. Brattleboro Food Co-op's Position on Genetically Modified Organisms Genetically Modified Organisms in the USA are already all pervasive in the market place. The only way to ensure that one is not consuming or supporting GMOs is to purchase organically grown foods.

Therefore, our goal is to promote certified organic foods as GMO free and work to keep organic foods GMO Free. We will continue to educate community members as to the possible contamination of organic foods via cross-pollination or other methods. This concern among others prompts us to work toward a moratorium on commercial production of GMO crops. In order to do this, members of our Food Action Co-op Team (FACT) will contact our food vendors, manufacturers, and suppliers of natural and commercial products and request they work to eliminate GMO ingredients from their product lines.

We will ask our suppliers to provide us with signed "letters of assurance" that their products are GMO free. If our suppliers do not respond to this request, we will seek other suppliers who are able to assure us that their products are GMO free. Consequently, we will identify items in our store known to be GMO free. We will continue to provide shoppers with information regarding genetically modified foods in order for them to make informed purchases.

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