Ethical Food – The Road to Your Table


After my article on our local food co-op efforts went up a few days ago, I received an email asking me why buying food from such a store was more “responsible” than buying organic food from a large chain. I might not have used the term responsible, and I would prefer to see people buying healthy food from a big chain instead of health damaging food from a local corner grocer. Having said that, here are a few reasons I would buy from a locally owned co-op or market rather than a big chain store.

First, let me say that I do not decry the fact that organic food is now available from places like Costco, Fred Meyer, or even Wal-Mart. I may choose to shop as little as possible at stores like Wal-Mart, but it is not because I think they should not be selling organic food. Admittedly, I sometimes feel strangely conflicted on the issue, but I guess having organic food available in as many places as possible is a good trend. I will try out my new polling software again and thank you for answering this question yourself at the bottom of this post.

Although there are many other benefits, here are two things that a local food co-op provides that a big chain does not. First, the food co-op can buy locally produced products, thereby keeping some of our money in our own community. Please read about the corn in this article for an almost comic example of what a large grocery chain called “local”.

Second the local store can make individual buying decisions, often based on the suggestions of their customers. Try suggesting to Wal-Mart or Costco that they should change the source of their organic peanut butter because it is made by a company owned by a huge food conglomerate that does not exactly represent the image of what would be called a producer of healthy food. As monster corporations see profits in the organic and health food industry, more small independent producers of ethical food are being brought under the large corporate labels.

The ownership of “small” organic suppliers is probably something for another article, but I’ll list just a few examples here. Did you know that the organic seed company “Seeds of Change” is wholly owned by the M&M Mars Corporation? Or that Kraft owns Boca Foods and Back to Nature? That General Mills owns Cascadia Farms and Muir Glen? Or that Cargill, discussed here , has its corporate tentacles in more health food companies than you can count? These examples do not necessarily mean that the subsidiary companies are not still true to their original mission, but it might be a concerning trend. There are many other examples of these disparate corporate relationships in the organic and health food industry. One place you can see some of these relationships represented in a graphical PDF file is here.

The increasing demand for food that is organic, hormone free, cruelty free, and ethical in general is a welcome trend. However, because I have seen the occasional dismaying performance of large corporations when it comes to truth in advertising, truth in production and ingredients, and oversight of production facilities, I am a bit concerned. Even though this concern may be somewhat misplaced and unrealistic in our global economy, the closer to home my sources of food are, the more comfortable I feel. In a local co-op, if the people stocking the store feel as committed to healthy, ethical food as I do, I believe they will research their buying decisions and buy with the concerns of their customers in mind. And I will certainly feel better eating food that has traveled that particular road to my table.


Does it matter to you where you buy organic food?

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Will Sig
1 Chris

Great article Will. You have to be so careful what you buy from large chain stores. So many of the labels are misleading as “all natural.”
p.s. Raivyn at Idiot’s Guide to Blogging told me about your site. Looks like we are like-minded.


2 Linda Prout

Hi Will,
As agribusiness chips away at the meaning of organic, I find myself moving away from that “organic” label and instead looking for local vendors and farmers who care about their product. Sometimes that means driving to the farm or ranch to see it for myself.

It is extremely satisfying to find and support farmers and other food producers who really do care about the land and their animals. Some farmers opt out of organic certification because of cost, yet they go far beyond organic production standards. I most prefer to buy from them. We have lost too many small farms over the years.

There are huge corporations that sell “organic” foods many of your readers would find unacceptable. Two well-known “organic” dairies have had complaints filed against them for confining massive numbers of cows into feedlots. I see their “organic” products in the larger chain stores, including Whole Foods, which gives me added incentive to shop locally, including subscribing to a local CSA (community supported agriculture).

I appreciate your article, and vision.

Linda Prout


3 Will

Hi Linda – thanks for succinctly stating my concern about this conglomerate move into the organic food business. This is exactly one of the things that locally owned stores and co-ops can do better than the big stores like Costco.

And you are exactly right about the dairy example. I think many people want to know how their food is produced. It is not enough to just meet the technical terms of organic certification if your cows are sick and crowded into an unhealthy environment.

This is why I am championing the use of the phrase “Ethical Food” and plan to put up a series of posts detailing what it is and why it is important. I did not think up the term and in fact at the beginning resisted it, thinking that organic food had to be by definition, “ethically produced”. Eventually I realized that was not the case at all.

When I began using the description myself seven months ago, a Google search turned up only a few hundred web sites with the term. Today the same search returns 33,600 results. Progress, but still a small number by Google standards and way smaller than a search for “organic food”. (Over 6 million results.)



4 A. Caleb Hartley

I would, like you, rather someone buy organic no matter where they choose to shop, but people need to understand that everything is interdependent – if they spend money at a smaller, locally-owned store, that is economically preferable for their community than spending it at Wal-Mart (unless they happen to live in Bentonville, Arkansas).

It’s difficult (maybe impossible) for anyone to grasp the full implications of their purchase decisions; it doesn’t excuse them from learning as much as they can about the impact of their decisions.

A. Caleb Hartley


5 Will

True Caleb, although I am starting to worry about the ethics of some of the largest organic producers. And yes, education is the key to change and to good health. That is why we need to spread the meaning of and live true to the message of ethical food! 🙂


6 Jolly Green Girl

Left a comment at BC but thought to leave one here too…

I have shopped at a co-op when I lived in New York City.. There’s plenty.. However there’s none where I currently live. There’s a farmers market that opens in the summer and going to go check it out and see if they offer Organic option.

I would buy from a co-op or health food store and have shopped at both but will not pay 3x more for a product even if it’s Organic. I am pretty much limited to my grocery store and even Wal-Mart (yes I know.. bad.. boo.. hiss) but I am just happy that they have Organic period.

I always buy Organic meat, egg, and milk.. fruits and veggies.. depends on the price and try to buy Organic bath and body products. But I don’t have a fortune so it’s a compromise at times.

I hope you do start a co-op and best of luck!!!


7 Will

Thank you JGG! It is hoped to be open this year, but it is a long difficult process to fund and open the doors. Once open if it is staffed with knowledgeable, enthusiastic, friendly, managers and emploees, I think it will be very successful.


8 Will

There have been a some good comments on the the question at the BC forums. I will copy a few here for everyone to read.

stoneman said: We get most of our food from a local CSA (community supported agriculture), which I suppose is a kind of co-op. We pay a flat fee twice a year and then pick up a share of food each week. The CSA also lets members buy individual items as needed.

Besides helping members get biodynamic and organic food at affordable prices, it also helps producers get reasonable prices, and it helps them with their planning.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this. Have bookmarked your site and will get back as soon as I can.

Food2gro said: First question: Yes I have shopped, contributed and worked at co-ops. I think they really are an incentive to support local growers for produce, dairy, honey etc.

Second question: Yes, it is very important where you buy your organic foods. Organic food is not necessarily safe food. My blog deals with organic growing, farmers markets, organic foods, alternative diets etc. It is important to buy local if you don’t grow your food. If you go to a farmer’s market you can always find out about conditions so that you can find out about E.Coli and other dangers. Good questions to ask are; Is the produce grown near cattle? Do you use animal fertilizer when you grow your food? If an organic grower uses animal fertilizer, there are very strict regiments that involve this. Ask the farmer about what type of safety measures and records they keep. My next post will talk about this as well. I’ve left you answers on your polls, joined your neighborhood, following you, added you as a friend and subscribed to your blog. Best of luck and keep on the green path!

Houseonahill said: I have shopped at co-ops, but have recently begun supporting
to get my fresh veggies and fruits. I also shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Food but try to only purchase items from local farms. Living in the Mid-West, I especially leave the California, Chile, Argentina items out.

I also try to buy organic but in the winter, I have attempted to eat mainly grains, nuts and lettuces.

I will check out your site. Great topic and great responses!

Kinichiriver said: I would love to shop at a co-op. Unfortunately, there are none around here that I have been able to find. I try to buy organic as often as I can at the grocery store and I’m so pleased that their organic section is growing. Sometimes i have to compromise due to finances, but we have been making many more organic choices lately.

It matters a little to me where I buy my organic products. If given the choice, I’d rather buy from a local seller, or at a farmers market than the chain grocery store here. However, I have not found those options in this area. So, grocery store it is.


9 Ling

I read in an article that each mouthful of food eaten in Seattle has to travel 1500 miles currently. If you buy local, or at small stores, instead of at Wal-Mart, there’s a good chance that you can do your bit to reduce the distance your own food has to travel before it reaches your mouth. And that’s in addition to the health and ecological benefits of purchasing local produce.


10 Jeff

Are you serious? Ethical food? Just kill it and eat it and be done with it! Most of the world is starving and you are writing about ethical food?


11 Linda Prout

A big reason much of the world is starving, and the rest is overfed and diseased, and farmland is being destroyed is from LACK OF ETHICS. More people need educating. Thanks for taking on this job Will.


12 Charlene

We sponsor a localvore fellowship a couple of times a year at our UU church. I would like to call the next one “Ethical Foods Fellowship” but don’t know what the definition is other than “organic.” Can you help me here? Thanks.


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