Conventional, Organic, IPM: making sense of labels

Grocery shopping can be a confusing process if you are someone who is trying to be health/eco conscious.  Labels are intentionally misleading, and label laws can be downright silly.  There are federal and third party certifications for a million things – non-GMO, Vegan, Kosher, gluten free, etc., etc., etc. – so depending on what your values are, there can be any number of symbols and words you are looking for on a food label.

Whether you are looking for specific label claims or not, it is useful to understand the difference between three central designations of production: conventional, organic, and IPM.

‘CONVENTIONAL’ food is the most common in our contemporary food system.  Conventional food is not typically labeled (except at Whole Foods), but is what most Americans think of simply as food (a.k.a. non-organic food).  It is usually the cheapest, and is by far the most widely consumed.  Conventional food is produced without limitation on chemical use, antibiotics, genetically modified ingredients, and so forth.  This is the food of the modern, industrial system.

Organic‘ORGANIC’ food is federally certified by the USDA to meet certain standards of production.  Big ticket items include limiting chemical use, and prohibiting the use of GMOs and sewage sludge.  Organic products are not all created equal, though.  If you ever buy organic foods, it is important to know the difference between the products that are labeled “100% Organic”, “Organic”, “Made with Organic”, and products that include organic items in the ingredient list.

100% Organic – All ingredients must be certified organic, including any processing aids (e.g. preservatives).

Organic – All ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List*. National List items can only make up 5% of the product’s ingredients.

*The ‘National List’ refers to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which identifies substances that may or may not be used in organic crop, livestock, and processed food production, in order to meet USDA regulations.

Made with Organic – 70% of ingredients in the product must be organic.  The other 30% do not have to be certified, but there are certain practices that are still prohibited for those ingredients.

Specific organic ingredients – A product that contains less than 70% of organic ingredients cannot use the USDA Organic label, or say the word ‘organic’ on the main label panel. Any certified organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredients panel.

epa_logo‘IPM’ is a useful designation to be familiar with if you are concerned about the environmental and personal health consequences of heavy chemical use on crops.  It stands for Integrated Pest Management, a sort of middle-ground production method advocated for by the Environmental Protection Agency.  The basic principle of IPM is to use the most “current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment” in order to determine the most economically and chemically efficient method of pest control.  IPM does not limit the use of chemical sprays the way that organic does, but it encourages IPM growers to use them judiciously.  If you buy produce from farmer’s markets or directly from farms and orchards, keep an eye out for IPM farms, and don’t be afraid to ask the producer what methods they use!

As consumers we all value different standards in our food, but being informed about the various designations in our food system is an important first step to putting our money where our mouths are.

Personally, I try to support both organic and IPM producers over conventional, when economically feasible.  I feel that any measure a grower is making to be more sustainable, and to produce safer food, is worth supporting.

apple treeThis time of year, with the onslaught of autumn apples, is a great time to seek out your local IPM producers.  Apples are a very difficult item to grow organically in large quantities, so many producers looking to move away from the conventional model turn to IPM for their apple orchards. We recently went apple picking at an IPM orchard in Vermont, and have been enjoying delicious apples ever since!

Knowledge is power.  Happy shopping!

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A Day in the Life of a Lucky Northwesterner

2013-09-12 16.54.54It’s true, I mention it more often than I probably should.  But the fact is, I love where I am from.  The Puget Sound is a beautiful, low-key (albeit rainy) part of the country, and I miss a million things about it when I’m away.

A couple of weeks ago Cooper and I flew home for a long weekend, just in time to catch 2013-09-12 16.16.40some anomalous perfect Seattle weather.  Sunny and warm, the Sound welcomed us with ideal hunting/gathering weather. And gather we did!  We had the fortune to borrow a friend’s boat for the day, and out we went, cruising around, zipping over to Seattle, and catching dinner.

After bouncing our way around the Island (I definitely lost my sea legs somewhere in Massachusetts) and dropping a few crab pots in our trusty spot (location classified) we pulled up to the beach to pick up Cooper and his dear friend Andrew, and set off towards Seattle for a fantastic meal of mostly-fried seafood and beer, on the deck of Ray’s Boathouse in Ballard.  It was so fun to smell the salty air – something we get surprisingly little of in Boston – and bake in the sun all afternoon, with some of our favorite people!

The deck of Ray's Boathouse

The deck of Ray’s Boathouse

Dad pulling the pots

Dad pulling the pots

After moseying back to the island and dropping Coop and Andrew at the beach (yes, they got fairly well soaked in the process), the three of us headed north to pull the crab pots and check out our catch.  Dad did all the work, but if you count steering the boat and cheering him on it was a successful group effort.  Though not a record breaking catch, we gathered more than enough for two meals!

Having gone a year or more without Dungeness crab, I requested that we enjoy it simply: cooked, cracked, and dipped in drawn butter.  Spectacular!

If you are competitive by nature, as some people I know tend to be, cracking crab is almost like trying to beat your own high score.  How many sections of leg meat can you pull out in one piece?  Seasoned crab crackers like to show off their prized segments as if the accomplishment were akin to winning a trophy.  I am a little out of practice, so most of my crab legs came out in fragmented chunks.  No matter! All the more surface area for butter to cling to!

Cooked and ready for cracking!

Cooked and ready for cracking!

With the first crab meal we also had my personal favorite, lemony basil pasta, along with steamed artichokes (dipped in more butter…), and a killer salad of arugula, Yakima peaches, and Roquefort blue cheese.  Ahh, it was good to be home!

The next day we drove out to the Washington coast for a night, where we feasted on more fresh seafood, cracked crab included!  The standout of this meal was Dad’s clam appetizer, which we ate sitting outside, watching the sun set over the ocean(I’ve been so disoriented on the east coast!), with chilled white wine from the Columbia Valley.  See for yourself!

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In one short trip we managed to squeeze in just about as much Northwest-y goodness as is possible: Boating around the Puget Sound, catching Dungeness crab, and feasting on all manner of fresh seafood, not to mention beach walking, dark nights without road noise, and quality time spent with family and friends.  It was a wonderful vacation.


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Ode to the Cast Iron Skillet

Depending on who you ask, on what day, during which season, you might get a million and one different answers to the question: “what is your one essential kitchen tool?”

I myself have several answers: a fork for example (what can’t you mix with a fork?), or a sturdy spatula. While rushing through a batch of fresh basil pesto, I might say a food processor.

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But what if you change locales, step out of your sterile kitchen environment, and go minimal? No dishwasher, no four+ burner stove, no cupboard full of pots and pans. What is your one essential cookware for camping?

Hands down, no question, you must be crazy if you don’t say: the cast iron skillet!

Cooper recently purchased a new one, so we took it on a all-too-quick camping trip to Hermit Island in Maine, near Bath, where we endeavored to season the skillet as it should be: with bacon grease, fresh air, and few stray pine needles.

I’m not exactly sure why this is, but when we go camping our commitment to healthy eating and quality ingredients seems to go by the wayside without a second thought. Chips, hotdogs, cheap beer… bring it on. This particular morning we cooked up one of our favorite, hearty camping breakfasts to get us ready for a day of adventuring. (For me, this meal is also reminiscent of a Pierce family camping classic, “Camp Pie”, the recipe for which is so top-secret I feel slightly uncomfortable even naming it here. Forget I even mentioned it.)

Standing at our picnic table, looking out at a picturesque Maine bay, we set to work on an epic one-skillet meal:

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One of the secrets to eating well on a camping stove is doing as much prep work at home as possible. For this breakfast we pre-steamed the potatoes and chopped the garlic and onion, so that when it came time to Skillet all we had to do was dump out the bag.

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This is not the kind of recipe that requires measurements or directions, really. The gist of it is as follows: heat up the skillet, line it with as much bacon as you can fit, once the bacon is about half-way done scoot it off to the side, and dump in your potato/onion/garlic mixture. Season it with salt and pepper (and whatever else you might want!), and remove the skillet from the heat only once the potatoes are fried golden brown and the bacon is to your liking. Serve with ketchup and Sriracha!

Maine was beautiful, camping was a perfect getaway, and our one-skillet breakfast was even better than it looks.

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Organic Beer, Organic Hops: WA leads the way

Did you know: until recently USDA certified organic beer did not have to be made with organic hops?

I recently did some digging into the Washington State hop industry (which produces 79% of all hops grown in the U.S.), and unexpectedly unearthed a reason to keep the faith in the power of individuals to affect policy change!


Fish Brewing Company is a brewery out of Olympia, WA that has a long standing USDA certified organic line

Until very recently The USDA allowed breweries to label their beer ‘organic’ even if the hops they used to produce it were not grown organically.  The Seattle Times published an article on this in October 2010, highlighting the push by organic hop growers to change these label laws.  According to this article, the USDA approved the use of conventional hops in organically labeled beer in 2007 because organic hop production was not prevalent enough to meet demand.  The American Organic Hop Growers Association, along with farmers and a few brewers, petitioned this ruling with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on December 8, 2009, arguing that the organic sector has grown enough, and will continue to grow to meet that demand, and should therefore be reflected in labeling and brewer accountability. 

The NOSB is a committee appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, responsible for making recommendations to the USDA regarding organics.

Shortly after this article was published the NOSB reviewed the petition, and ruled that conventional hops should be removed from the National List – the list of conventional products allowed in organic food production – by January 1, 2013.  Their reasoning for the delay was that “this time interval formally recognizes the growth of organic hops’ availability and yet allows brewers two growing seasons to secure their organic hops through forward contracting, making adjustments to future product formulations and specifications, and preparing their customers and consumers for the product changes anticipated… This recommendation will also provide immediate encouragement and market demand for those organic suppliers who claim to have unsold organic hops in storage” (p. 2).  This recommendation was approved 13-1 by the NOSB. 


The American Organic Hop Grower Association is a non-profit organization that represents hop growers and brewers nationwide in an effort to unite them behind the organic cause. (Because most of the hops produced in the U.S. are grown in Yakima Valley, a majority of their farming members are based out of Washington.) Their mission is to help farmers improve the quality and variety of their organic hop crops, and to raise awareness among brewers of those crops.  They seek to unite growers and brewers in order to grow demand for domestically produced organic hops, and to improve the marketability of both the hops and the beer.

According to a “Profile of Organic Crops in Washington State – 2008” produced by WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington hop farmers planted 54 acres of certified organic hops in 2008, up from 4 acres in 2004. 

We will not know the effects of the NOSB ruling until data becomes available for 2013 and preceding years, but it looks like the organic hop industry is gaining ground in Washington State, thanks to the efforts of individuals working together to demand policy change!  Keep your eyes open for signs of positive change; you never know where inspiration might be found!

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Should We Be Growing Genetically Modified Crops?

As someone interested in food policy and global food systems, I am often asked what my opinion is on GMOs, so I decided it was high time I formulate one.  After finally tackling the debate for a school research project, I have come out on the other side with a (somewhat) educated opinion on this question: Should we be growing genetically modified crops? GMO image This is an incredibly complex issue, with duplicitous factors at play – from politics to religion.  For the purpose of my research I focused on three key categories of interest: environmental impact, human safety, and socioeconomic impact.

My final paper was 20+ pages, so I will provide a brief summary of the debate and my findings here, but if you are interested in reading the whole thing you can view it on my pressfolios page (  I hope this helps you to consider new perspectives and to raise questions of your own!  I have added some of the more useful sources from my research to the bottom of this post, if you are interested in diving into the deep end.


Environmental Impacts: Pros and Cons
Proponents of GM crops argue that there is a considerable amount to be gained from GM crops by way of environmental impact.  Their most commonly cited environmental benefits are reduction in pesticide use and greenhouse gas emissions, and the conservation of non-agricultural ecosystems.

One of the most widely recognized environmental concerns of planting GM crops is our inability to keep them under control.  The Institute for Responsible Technology explains that by introducing GM crops into the environment we put both natural species, and other conventional crops at almost-certain risk of crosspollination.  Marion Nestle also addresses this risk in her book What to Eat, warning against what she considers to be the “inability of biotechnology companies to keep their genes under control”.

Another serious concern over the commercial use of GM crops is the evolutionary potential for ‘super bugs’ and ‘super weeds’ to develop. Despite claims from the biotechnology industry that resistance can be held at bay by careful crop management, many scientists – both pro- and anti-GMO – argue that this evolution of insects and weeds will happen eventually through natural selection.

Health Impacts: Pros and Cons
Proponents of GM crops see improved health as the biggest benefit of GM crops, while opponents see it as one of the scariest unknowns.  One of the strongest arguments that the pro-GMO camp makes is that increasing yields by planting GM seeds is the best, if not only way to feed growing populations and to end world hunger.  As the whole world faces serious issues of hunger and malnutrition, and rising population levels, biotechnology is seen by many as a sort of golden ticket, an answer for the all consuming question, “how will we feed everyone?”

The question of whether or not GM foods are safe for human consumption really comes down to the unknown.  Not only do we not know very much about the impact of consuming GM foods, but there is also a tremendous amount of conflicting data that has been published on the subject.  All pro-biotechnology institutions, like the U.S. federal government, claim that GM foods are safe for human consumption because they are not significantly different from their non-GM counterparts.  Several studies have been published, however, that suggest otherwise.  One of the biggest concerns here is that very little testing is done on the health impacts of consuming GM products before they are put on the market.

Socio-economic impacts: Pros and Cons
The socio-economic impacts of GM crops are highly disputed.  The central argument made by biotechnology proponents is that the increased yields promised from GM crops will increase farmer revenue, and alleviate poverty in developing countries.  Others point out that this elevated revenue level has potential to lead to other socioeconomic benefits, such as increased access to education for children.

One of the biggest socioeconomic concerns stems from the financial motivation of the companies that develop and control the GM seeds, and the way that these transnational corporations trap farmers, both domestically within the U.S. and internationally, in a cycle of dependency.  Farmers who use patented GM seeds are not legally allowed to save seeds from one season to the next; they are obligated to purchase and use the expensive chemical sprays that are designed to work with the GM plants; and once they grow the GM crop it is extremely difficult to revert back to non-GM crops because they will likely be breaking patent laws by unintentionally growing contaminated seeds.  Additionally, GM seeds are expensive, and require the use of expensive chemicals.


This analysis of the GMO debate brings to light an important point: genetic modification is still in its early stages, and it has not even come close to reaching its full potential.  That is to say, that while the risks of growing GM crops on the commercial level for human and animal consumption are very real at present that does not mean that genetic engineering is a failed technology.  Biotechnology has tremendous potential to address the panacea of problems associated with our current model of industrial agriculture, both for developed countries like the U.S. and for countries who are seeking to model their system after our own.  But until these considerable questions on the safety and sustainability of GM crops are thoroughly tested and conclusively answered, we need to slow down the advancement of agro-biotechnology, and proceed with caution.


Some of my most useful sources:
Kaplan, Melanie D.G. (2010, June 30). Biotechnology will help us feed the world. Smart Planet, retrieved from
Mannion, A.M. & Morse, Stephen (2012). Biotechnology in agriculture: Agronomic and environmental considerations and reflections based on 15 years of GM crops. Progress in Physical Geography, 36(6), 748.
Nestle, Marion (2006). What to eat (pp. 58-59). New York: North Point Press.
Stone, Glenn Davis (2010). The anthropology of genetically modified crops. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 383.
Thomson, Jennifer A. (2006). Seeds for the future: The impact of genetically modified crops on the environment (111). Ithica, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates.
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80 Thoreau: a must go!

This past Christmas my brother Josh and sister-in-law Jenny gave us the thoughtful gift of fine Massachusetts dining, and we had been saving it for a special occasion.  Last night we got all dolled up and drove out to Concord to celebrate our anniversary at 80 Thoreau.  It was a gustatory delight!

We arrived a little bit early for our reservation, so we kicked off our date at the bar with house-made tonic and Junipero gin. Glass o' class at the 80 Thoreau bar

Sipping our refreshing, appetite-inspiring cocktails, we were busily discussing the softly lit, open floor plan of the the restaurant when the hostess announced that our table was ready.  Our entire experience at 80 Thoreau was tasteful and classy, while not being overdone.  We never felt that discomfort that sometimes comes with a too-stuffy wait staff, but instead were recipients of some of the best service I have experienced, anywhere.

As soon as we were seated at our table, the sommelier came over carrying a bottle of Domaine de Fondreche wine, and congratulated us on a “happy anniversary”.  “How did you know?!” I asked.  “Your dad called, and ordered this bottle of wine in celebration of your anniversary.”

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Now that’s a celebration!  It was such fun to be sitting in the corner table listening to the tinkling of glasses and murmured conversation while watching as each table took their time before each dish.  We clinked glasses and dove head first into what was sure to be an outstanding menu.

Crab cake with garlic pea cream and sorrel

Crab cake with garlic pea cream and sorrel

We started our first course with crab cakes and gnocchi, both of which were unusual, velvety rich renditions of classic dishes.  Native Northwesterners, we are used to the buttery richness of dungeness crab and so have been apprehensive about the ability of blue crab to live up to our standards.  This crab cake, however, was bright, creamy, and faintly crunchy in the way that only soft shell crab can be. 

The gnocchi was subtle and comforting, like a lazy sunday morning in Spring.  Every dish on the menu complimented each another, so that no matter what combination you ordered it would seem as if designed in partnership.  And the presentation was lovely.  See for yourself!

Seared gnocchi with nettles, vidalia and prosciutto

Seared gnocchi with nettles, vidalia and prosciutto

The main course proved to be even more sensational than the first.  I ordered scallops for the first time ever, and was not disappointed!  They were silky and firm, with the faintest hint of sea, just enough to remind me of fresh ocean water but no more.  My scallop bar has been set pretty high!

Seared scallops with parsnip puree and pousse-pied

Seared scallops with parsnip puree and pousse-pied

Cooper ordered a veal porterhouse steak, cooked medium rare and one hundred percent outrageous. Neither of us had ever had a whole veal steak before, but I don’t think it will be the last time!  It was so tender they didn’t even offer a steak knife with it.

Grilled veal porterhouse with fava, escarole, and green garlic

Grilled veal porterhouse with fava, escarole, and green garlic

Last, but certainly not least, was dessert.  We had chèvre cheesecake served with a rhubarb reduction sauce and candied pistachios.  And a “happy anniversary” candle.  Cooper had an espresso and I a cappuccino to go with what turned out to be the smoothest, most delicate cheesecake I have ever tasted.  I wish I had another one in front of me right now!

Chevre cheesecake, rhubarb and pistachios

Chevre cheesecake, rhubarb and pistachios

80 Thoreau was an unforgettable restaurant, and we are so greatful to Josh and Jenny for making it possible!  We truly celebrated in Cooper and Kari fashion, and it was oh-so-fun!

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A Culinary Reunion: The Pierce’s Come to Boston

“What are you guys thinking of ordering?”

“I don’t know! Listen to this: ‘crispy skin duck breast with brown butter farro, shaved brussels sprouts and pomegranate and pistachio relish, and pomegranate molasses reduction’. I might have to get that. But the ‘ale braised lamb shank’ sounds pretty amazing too.”

“Oo yeah. I think I’m going to order the duck.”

“Well we should probably start with the steamed New England mussels and warm Vermont goat cheese. And a bottle of Louis Martini Cab.”

20130510-172036.jpgSound delicious? It was. This was just the introduction to a week marked by appetizers, entrees and wine (and the occasional dessert) while my parents visited us from the west coast. We successfully, and most enjoyably, ate our way through the neighborhoods of Boston, starting with Stephanie’s on Newbury Street.


Cooking lobster and lamb roast for Easter dinner

There was far too much imbibing during that week-long visit to detail in one short story; where to begin? With the morning strolls through the Public Gardens carrying coffee and scones from Boston Common Coffee Company? Or with the slightly bizarre seafood joint where Mom mistakenly ordered less-than-desirable, food-poisoning-potential, “wicked clean” steamer clams? It was all so delicious and fun I couldn’t possibly write it all down, so here are a few of my favorites:

After our first dinner in the North End (which, for those who don’t know, is the Italian quarter of Boston), my dad pipes up and says, “well we can’t exactly come to Boston and only eat in the North End once!”, so away we went for round two! While both were outstanding meals full of house made pasta, red meats, seafood, and wine, I am going to pick favorites and say that I particularly enjoyed our first meal at Trattoria di Monica.

Like many of the restaurants in the North End, Trattoria di Monica is tiny, barely managing to squeeze in 10 or so tables between their old brick walls. We waited outside for 45-teasing minutes that Saturday night for one of those tables to become available, which proved to be almost as eventful as the meal itself! Not only were we nearly run over by fire trucks bouncing up onto the sidewalk as they went screaming through the narrow streets, but we also got to eavesdrop on the accent of a group of quintessential Boston Italian young men wearing all white track suits talking about playing bahl in the pahk.


3 hot chocolates (and 1 cappuccino) at L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates

I loved this Italian meal in particular because it managed to be both classic and creative, while occupying our attention for over three hours! That is the remarkable thing about a good meal: you can sit and enjoy each other as much as you enjoy the food! We all ordered from the specials menu, which was so long and enticing that we had to ask the strung out server to repeat them three times! We shared tomato-cheesy appetizers, mussels, crusty bread, house-made pastas and a refreshing berry dessert, and soothing luscious sangiovese. I myself had the carbonara, which was as rich and creamy as one could hope for, right to the last bite.

On Monday morning, while the entire city was slipping into work clothes and shuffling downtown, the four of us climbed into Joe Silver and headed south, passing by Plymouth Rock and old presidents’ homes on the way to Cape Cod (“The Cape”, as New Englanders devotedly refer to it). Donning our sunglasses we set out to explore the famous cape and it’s fine sea-fare. But wait! It is March on Cape Cod, and everything (and I do mean everything) is closed! Driving along the sleepy roads we passed brilliant red cranberry bogs tucked in below the water line. We sailed by boarded up seasonal lobster shacks and majestic weathered homes. We paused at state parks and beach access points (most of which were closed from storm damage), and waited for a pair fluffy orange foxes to tiptoe across the asphalt back into their private winter woods.

It was lovely.

Sir Cricket'sBut all that moseying makes for a hungry crowd, and where to find an open restaurant was anybody’s guess. On a whim my mom thought to text my brother-in-law, Chuck, who spent many a childhood summer on the cape visiting family. He instructed us to go to Sir Cricket’s, and so we did! The only open restaurant we passed from Sandwich to Provincetown, Sir Cricket’s was a felicitous recommendation. This lobster shack had it all: sunny yellow paint, white lawn chairs accompanying four plastic indoor tables, and more than a little fishy stink. Did I mention the lobster roll special?

Never having experienced the famous Massachusetts lobster rolls, we were all wide-eyed and oogly when the cook in the rubber apron called “order up!” We each got a white, squishy hoagie roll stuffed to overflowing with freshly cracked pink and white lobster. They smelled salty and sweet in the way that only shellfish mixed with mayonnaise can, and the bright yellow lemon wedge cut through that creaminess with perfect acidity. We didn’t say much during that meal; we just ate.

half-way through, I needed to take a break!

half-way through, I needed to take a break!

It has been almost two months since their visit, and the details of many of the meals have faded behind final papers and sleep deprivation, but one thing is clear: we ate like kings and enjoyed every minute!

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