Spotlight on Terra Organica
Selected by OCA as one of the 2013 ‘Diligent Dozen” Right to Know Grocers
“Transparency is part of our culture and our business model. We value pure food and ethical behavior, and our product selection and business practices reflect that.”
As the first retailer in North America to label products likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients, Bellingham, Washington-based Terra Organica is clearly the “right to know” industry leader.
When Terra Organica launched its GMO education campaign in 2006, customer interest was minimal. But that changed in 2012, during California’s high-profile Proposition 37 ballot initiative to label GMOs. As consumers became more aware, and more educated, about GMOs in the food supply, Terra Organic surveyed its customers to find out if they preferred that products containing GMOs be discontinued over time, or labeled. Ninety percent of the respondents said they wanted the store to label GMO products.
Once the decision to label was made, customers embraced it. “To say that our customers love our GMO policies would be an understatement,” said Stephen Trinkaus, owner and general manager. “They are proud to shop at a store that labels GMOs. Many go out of their way to shop here just because of that.”
Terra Organica’s labeling policy not only made consumers happy, it helped sway some of the store’s suppliers to go GMO-free. “I can probably name 15 or 20 companies that were compelled to either begin, or to expedite, non-GMO certification as a direct result of our labeling,” said Trinkaus. He credited the power of social media with influencing some of those companies.
“Either we would post a photo of a product with one of our GMO Alert tags on social media, or a customer would,” Trinkaus said. “The photos would then be shared and soon it’s a PR headache for the company.” The store’s first GMO alert tag posted on Facebook was viewed by 200,000 people!
Terra Organica was founded by Trinkaus in 1997, with the intent of carrying only the purest and most ethically produced food available, as well as educating customers about nutrition, transparency in labeling and fair trade.
“We research each product we sell to ensure it is ethically produced and the purest available,” said Trinkaus. “Every item has a reason for being on the shelf. Our GMO Alert!’ labels in front of products that are likely to contain GMOs is just the tip of the iceberg. We go out of our way to tell the stories behind the products we sell, including who grows them, how they are processed, how much nutrition is retained or lost.”
Today roughly 95 percent of Terra Organica’s products are organic or wild-crafted. “We have more organic products than you can shake a stick at, including the area’s only all-organic produce department, a recently updated organic bulk food section, frozen meat that goes way ‘beyond organic’ and a gazillion other organic products,” said Trinkaus. “Plus, all of our produce is 20% off every Sunday!”
Trinkaus traces his embrace of organics back to a speech by Cesar Chavez on the plight of farm workers. Trinkaus heard the speech in 1991, and soon after became involved with the migrant worker cause. Learning about the social injustices they faced and the terrible effects of the synthetic chemicals they were exposed to motivated Trinkaus to adopt an all-organic diet—a drastic change for him at the time.
“As many have found, when one begins to question the dominant assumptions of society, one’s life can change on many fronts. I found my desire to work in international business supplanted by the goal of working in organic agriculture.”
Given Trinkaus’ solidarity with exploited farm workers, it’s no surprise that he’s committed to offering organics for all, including those with limited income. Along with 20 percent off produce Sundays, he created Bargainica, a discount store within a store that provides an ever-changing assortment of organic and natural foods at discount prices, with much of it deeply discounted. And on Wednesdays seniors get 10 percent off everything in the whole store!
Terra Organica also caters to customers on special diets by offering a 100-percent gluten-free section and a raw foods section. And the store carries products for the Weston A. Price Foundation macrobiotic, paleo, vegetarian and vegan diets.
OCA honors Terra Organica for its unmatched commitment to transparency, and for the high degree to which it fulfills its lofty mission: “We seek to be an inspiration to our community and our world by engaging in business that thinks forward to the needs of future generations. Our goals include meaningful work, economic vitality, wise stewardship of the Earth, and service to others.”
Q. When did your store decide to take action to protect your customers from GMOs and how did your GMO education, labeling and purchasing policies and practices come about?
A. Our store was founded in 1997, with the idea that we would carry only the purest and most ethically produced food available. That meant from day one that almost all of the foods we sold were organically grown. Genetically engineered foods went into commercial production the year before we opened. They were always a concern of ours, and as they became more prevalent we became more focused on them.
In 2006, we became concerned about the proliferation of GMOs in the agricultural landscape. That’s when we began in earnest to educate our customers about GMOs. We began by simply displaying Jeffrey Smith’s books Seeds of Deception and later Genetic Roulette, then by adding non-GMO shopping guides and other information at our point of sale. For our customers, it kind of simmered on the back burner with only a small percentage taking a real interest in it. Then when Prop 37 was launched in California, it seemed all our customers became aware of the issue, and wanted to know more about how they could avoid GMOs in their diet.
In November of 2012, just after Prop 37 lost, we asked our customers if they wanted us to label the few GMO ingredients on our shelves, discontinue them, or just continue to minimize our purchase of them. Over 90 percent of our customers who responded chose labeling as the best option. It took us about four months to develop a system, and we put the first labels up in March of 2013.
The system we developed is a “GMO Alert!” shelf tag the size of business card. On the card, we write the brand, product and likely GMO ingredient(s) in the product. We will list either the crop (i.e. corn) or the ingredient derived from the crop (i.e. citric acid). If the ingredient or the product is indicated on the product label as being organic or non-GMO, then we don’t label the item. We also contact the companies to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. If they are in transition to non-GMO ingredients, then we use a “GMO Information” shelf tag instead that explains what they are doing. It gives us the chance to present more of a narrative about the process of switching to non-GMO ingredients.
The reality is that we have never carried very many foods with possible GMO ingredients in the first place. They are mostly found in our gluten-free section and in products we rotate in on monthly specials.
We also engage the community through creative GMO education efforts. For example, our town’s largest parade is the Ski to Sea Grand Parade leading up to a multi-staged relay race. (The race attracts participants from around the world. It starts on the slopes of Mt. Baker Ski Area and ends with a sea kayak leg on Bellingham Bay.) Terra Organica entered a contingent into the parade last year called, “Watch Us Grow: Organic, Local and Non-GMO.” We held signs, wore costumes, and sang a song written for the occasion while we marched the parade route. We got a lot of applause, whoops and hollers from the spectators and we were able to reach beyond the “choir” in a fun and non-confrontational way. It was a great way to start a conversation in the greater community.
We also have a GMO costumed mascot named GENO (Genetic Engineering – NO, get it?!) I wear the GENO costume around the store and out on the street. He has three eyes, looks both funny and freaky, and has Velcro attached to him. We hand labels with Velcro to people and challenge them to label GENO the GMO. So they run around after GENO, who tries as hard as he can to avoid labeling. But in the end, he always gets labeled. It’s hard not to laugh the whole time, and we get the point across—we CAN and WILL label GMOs!
Q. What has been the most difficult aspect of keeping GMOs out of your store?
A. The most difficult aspect of keeping GMOs out of our store has been getting accurate information from our suppliers before introducing a new product. There is still a lot of confusion out there about what ingredients are likely to contain GMOs, and we still find that some people in the industry are confused on the difference between GMOs and hybrids. We’ve also found some suppliers to be in complete denial. For example, they will insist that their soy supplier is non-GMO, yet they have never asked for verification of this. Many people in the industry still operate on a handshake. That’s not good enough in today’s GMO-saturated marketplace, especially when you take cross-pollination into consideration.
There is no doubt that all of our suppliers are now far more aware of the GMO issue than they were even a few months ago. I think the efforts of the Non-GMO project, Washington’s GMO labeling initiative (I-522), and general awareness-raising coming from the activist community has had a lot to do with that.
I think that taking this to the next level—getting GMOs out of a significant portion of the food supply—will require that more that consumers and stores raise the issue directly with the food companies. Now that they are aware of the issue, we need to push them to take action.
Q. What do you think about GMOs and livestock feed as they relate to your local and regional meat and dairy producers?
A. On the store level, we label any meat or dairy product where the supplier cannot guarantee a non-GMO feed supply.
On the macro level, we are very concerned with the proliferation of GMO feed crops. Corn and soy are bad enough, but now we also have to contend with the recent approval of GMO alfalfa. It seems inevitable that with cross-pollination, in a few years it will be impossible to guarantee that even organic feed stocks will be free of DNA from genetically engineered varieties. That’s why it’s so important to fight like hell now. In a short time, the genie will be completely out of the bottle and we will have very few non-GMO options. Once GMOs are commercially grown on a large scale, their DNA is going to get out there and you can never recall it.
Q. Please share a few stories about your success in persuading manufacturers to remove or replace GMO ingredients in their products.
A. As a result of our efforts to label products with likely GMO ingredients, we have seen some unintended positive consequences. One of them is that it has persuaded manufacturers to go non-GMO. This was never the intent of our labeling program, but it has worked out that way.
I can probably name 15 or 20 companies that were compelled to either begin or expedited non-GMO certification as a direct result of our labeling. The reason for this is simple: social media.
Either we would post a photo of a product with one of our GMO Alert tags on social media, or a customer would. The photos then get shared and soon it’s a PR headache for the company. To either avoid this scenario, or because of it, many companies have really gotten on the ball about going non-GMO.
The first time we posted a photo of our GMO Alert tag on Facebook, it went viral and was viewed by over 200,000 people. We deleted the photo at the request of the company whose product it appeared in front of. We deleted it because we are not trying to punish companies, just inform our customers. But with social media, things can get to a wide audience quite quickly and we can’t control that.
Several manufacturers that ship direct have pulled their products from our store because of the labeling. They don’t want their products to be associated with GMOs on our shelves or in social media. However, almost all the products we have labeled come to us via a distributor so the manufacturer can’t refuse to sell to us unless they pull the product out of distribution.
We also don’t bring in new products that contain GMO ingredients. In doing so in conjunction with so many other stores, we are part of the movement to put pressure on manufacturers to (1) remove GMO ingredients and (2) get certified by the Non-GMO Project.
Q. What customer feedback have you received about your GMO policies and practices?
A. To say that our customers love our GMO policies would be an understatement. They are proud to shop at a store that labels GMOs. Many go out of their way to shop here just because of that.
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?
A. Consumer education is everything, and especially in dispelling the many myths about GMOs that are promoted by biotech companies and the grocery industry. I think we need to be more confident in our portrayal of GMOs as a threat to human and environmental health. We have to stop buying into the lie that there is scientific consensus that they are safe. This just isn’t true! The science that says this has been bought and paid for by the people who profit off GMOs and they go to extreme lengths to discredit anyone who contradicts it. Plus, there has never been even one peer reviewed study of the long-term effects of GMOs on human health.
I also think we need to keep pushing for mandatory labeling – state by state and/or at the national level.
Finally, we need to urge companies to certify with the Non-GMO project. And that includes manufacturers of more mainstream products, not just the usual suspects in the natural foods aisles. I dream of a day when products with Non-GMO certification are more the rule than the exception. That will have a HUGE ripple through the industry and could put the brakes on GMOs in a big way.
Q. What would you like to tell other grocers thinking about taking products with GMO ingredients off their shelves?
A. I would tell them that the increase in business they see as a result of removing GMOs and/or labeling them will outweigh the loss in sales from those products IF they can effectively and sincerely communicate to their customers why they are doing it. Customers want to feel we are looking out for them. This is one way grocers can do that.
On Mission and Values …
Q. What makes your store special in the competitive natural foods marketplace?
A. The main thing that sets us apart is our ingredient standards. We have a list of literally hundreds of ingredients that we do not allow in our store. These standards apply to all departments, not just food. Our personal care section has some of the strictest standards in the whole store.
Also, transparency is part of our culture and our business model. Our “GMO Alert!” labels in front of products that are likely to contain GMOs is just the tip of the iceberg. We go out of our way to tell the stories behind the products we sell—who grows them, how they are processed, how much nutrition is retained or lost. I regularly give store tours to customers. These often last an hour or two as we delve deeply into what really goes into a product arriving on our shelves. We are never afraid to tell the truth, even if we lose a sale as a result. In the long run, it does pay off in customer loyalty and increased sales.
Q. Describe your store’s mission and values.
A. We value pure food and ethical behavior and our product selection and business practices reflect that. Our mission statement is as follows: “We seek to be an inspiration to our community and our world by engaging in business that thinks forward to the needs of future generations. Our goals include meaningful work, economic vitality, wise stewardship of the Earth, and service to others.”
Q. What are your store’s goals?
A. Ultimately our goal is to put grocery stores out of business, including our own. As we say on our website, “One day our food will not be so processed, so packaged, and come from so far away from our communities. Children will no longer think that food ‘comes from’ supermarkets and restaurants because it will come from the people who grow it, raise it, fish it, hunt it, bake it, and otherwise create it. It won’t be paid for by bank cards, and nor will the costs to produce it be externalized in the environment and our health bills. If this world comes to be in my lifetime, you may find me once again living off the grid. Until then, or until the day I retire, you will find me here, doing my best to fill your shopping cart with the most nourishing foods I can convince you to buy.”
And really, that last sentence covers everything , except that it’s not just the food – it’s also the personal care items, cleaning products, personal supplements and every other think you can buy in our store.
Q. What actions can OCA take on behalf of your store and customers?
A: Continue to advocate for the organic movement, not just as far as what products are available and how they are produced, but also in creating a culture of true sustainability where it is cool to eat nourishing food grown in a high integrity food system. I think the OCA has a leadership role to play in defining that culture and giving it a voice.
Personally speaking …
Q. What do you find most enjoyable and gratifying about the retail grocery business?
A. I got into the business because of my passion for natural health and sustainable agriculture. But truth be told that’s not what motivates me most to come to work every day all these years later. What I love most about my job as the owner and general manager of Terra Organica is the community that revolves around the store – the staff, customers, suppliers, etc. I can’t wait to come to work every day because I can’t wait to hang out with these people. It’s a dream come true. As a kid I was an outcast and experienced extreme bullying. I never fit in. Here I not only fit in, I’m appreciated for who I am and I’m utterly in love with these people. That we can provide such nourishing food is just icing on an amazing, tasty, home-made, home-grown, organic, non-GMO cake.
Q. How did you get interested in natural foods retailing?
A. If you could travel back in time to the early 1990’s to seek me out, you would never guess that the guy you would meet would someday own an organic grocery store. In 1991, I was attending Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, finishing up my degree in Latin American Studies. My goal was to go to grad school, then work in international trade. I spoke fluent Spanish and had spent a couple of years living in and traveling through Latin America. I also ate the Standard American Diet (a.k.a. SAD), in other words, lots of processed food. To put myself through college, I worked for Domino’s pizza and often survived on over-cooked pies and cancelled orders that we could take home.
During the summer I worked at Bellingham Frozen Foods, a food processing business that used to sit on Bellingham’s waterfront. Because I spoke fluent Spanish, I was often called on to translate for the many Mexican workers who worked there.
In 1991, the great migrant farm worker organizer and union leader Cesar Chavez spoke at WWU. Through the efforts of local groups who were in solidarity with his cause, I learned not only about the social injustices suffered by migrant workers, but also about the high incidence of birth defects, certain cancers, and other degenerative diseases common in the migrant population due to their exposure to synthetic agricultural chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.). When I thought about what I didn’t know about the lives of the migrant workers I had befriended, it motivated me to commit to an all-organic diet – a drastic change!
As many have found, when one begins to question the dominant assumptions of society, one’s life can change on many fronts. I found my desire to work in international business supplanted by the goal of working in organic agriculture. I forfeited my comfortable rental to live off the grid in a school bus that I converted into my home. I began to grow my own food and live closer to the land in every way. And I started working for Omega Nutrition, a local company best known for pressing organic flax seed oil. My journey into the world of sustainability and organics had begun.
People who start businesses usually do so for passion for the product or service they offer, for the profit potential, or both. The pioneers of the organic movement definitely fall in the passion category. However, one aspect of being in business is that when the business grows, the person or people who started it end up doing very different jobs than those they did initially. For better or for worse, I have found this true in my business as well. I now spend a lot of time dealing with finance, marketing, strategic planning, managing the managers, and such, rather than the things I used to do such as working with farmers and talking to customers.
When I worked for Omega Nutrition, the owner found himself in a similar predicament. This, however, worked in my favor as he took me under his wing and enabled me to do many fun and inspiring things. I attended farming conferences and industry trade shows, and partook in nutritional workshops. I met and worked with many pioneers in the organic field.
The result of this is that my eyes were opened wide to the realities of the industry. I saw that the organic values were being corrupted by greed for money and market share. Large corporations, with little interest in planetary or human health, gobbled up small companies. At the retail level, slick marketing and nutritional double-speak were becoming the norm. I had been under the assumption that health food stores sold healthy food. Silly me!
My solution? I would open up my own store and we would do the research for the customers. This would be a back-to-the-roots endeavor of integrity, where people and planet would always come before profits.
In 1996, Omega Nutrition burned to the ground in a devastating fire. Luckily, nobody was hurt. During the chaos that followed, I lost my job there and decided to live out my crazy dream—to open an all-organic grocery store! Whatever products we sold would be researched by us for purity of ingredients and for manufacturers’ ethical standards. After living off the grid in a school bus all those years, and working my butt off, I not only had paid off my student loans, but had savings. With my savings, investment capital from friends and family, and a few credit cards, I opened Terra Organica in March of 1997.
Q. What else would you like us to know about your store?
A. Our store is part of a larger community within the Bellingham Public Market. We are a conglomeration of small locally owned businesses under one roof. We are the largest tenant and thus act as the anchor business. Most of the businesses here use sustainable practices. I talked earlier about the community that revolves around the store, and the Public Market is a huge part of that.
One of the great things about the Public Market is that we share resources; everything from bathroom maintenance to all chipping it to pay the heat bill in the winter. It took a number of years for the tenant mix to gel into a cohesive unit, but once we got there it’s quite a magical place.