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Organic food fight

(article, Melanie Mesaros)

Wouldn't it be nice to go into a restaurant in Anytown, U.S.A., and be able to order at least one organic dish? Chain restaurants are well aware of the push to go organic, but obstacles remain for the big food kahunas. 

“Let's be honest, we're not gonna be able to do it,” says John Merlino, a corporate chef for Claim Jumper, a chain of family restaurants. “The supply and demand isn't going to be there.” 

Supply and demand, as recently reported in the New York Times, has become a problem for restaurants trying to source enough cage-free eggs. And when Merlino approached one of Claim Jumper's beef producers about doing an organic program, he says, they told him they didn't have enough product. 

Another issue is the seasonal nature of organic produce, meaning that prices for the same product can fluctuate depending on the season. Even cheap organics sourced out-of-season from such places as China and Chile often turn up blemished or damaged by insects. And because organic certification differs from country to country, "organic" in China might not mean the same thing as "organic" in the U.S.      

“This goes against everything we do, which is a product that is consistent and beautiful year-round,” Merlino says. 

[%image feed-image float=left width=250 caption="Claim Jumper's Southwest Eggrolls might contain organic brown rice — someday."]

Bart Minor, president of the country's Mushroom Council, says that USDA numbers tell a different story about demand, at least for his industry. According to the USDA, more than 32 million pounds of certified organic mushrooms were sold in the 2005-2006 season, but only about nine million were sold at the organic price. That's because growers weren't able to fetch the higher organic price, so they were sold at a regular rate. In most supermarkets, that's about 50 cents less per package. 

“Everybody says they want organic, but they don't want to pay for it,” Minor says. “As an organic supplier, if you want 'em, we got 'em. But the issue is price, not supply/availability.”

Merlino agrees that putting together something as simple as an all-organic burger would cut too deeply into profits. The cost of the meat and bun doubles, while cheese and produce are about a third more expensive.  In order to sell the hamburger and make money, Claim Jumper would have to sell it for $15. 

“I can't build a 100-percent organic product because I can't afford to sell it,” Merlino says. “You have to pick and choose.”  

Merlino hopes to compromise by using more organic components, such as brown rice and flour. In the meantime, he’s planning to attend the Culinary Institute of America's annual forum in early September, where agricultural leaders, influential chefs, and restaurant-industry players get to weigh in on the quality/price struggle. 

“Ethically and morally, it's the right thing to do. But we are in business to make money,” says Merlino.

Elsewhere on Culinate: A review of a book with organic buying tips.

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