Following the organic spice trail

by Donna Berry
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Amid growing demand for organic label claims, product developers seek out solutions to a limited supply of the world's most flavorful ingredients.
 

KANSAS CITY — Sales of organic foods continue to grow in both retail and food service, despite the continued struggle for supply to meet demand. Consumers’ desire for organic, along with their craving for convenience and flavor adventure, has retailers seeking organic offerings that go beyond the whole foods merchandised around the perimeter of the store. In response, food manufacturers are developing prepared foods — from condiments to heat-and-eat meals — with organic ingredients.

In 2013, Euromonitor International, Chicago, predicted that the U.S. organic packaged foods industry would grow by 19% from 2012 to 2017. Current trends suggest the figure will likely be exceeded and continue to grow at a rapid rate.

More than 80% of meals are sourced from home, according to NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. Food manufacturers may benefit by capitalizing on consumers’ desires for fresh, authentic foods, including organic. The variety of organic packaged foods is expected to grow as more ingredients receive organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The issue is making the packaged foods flavorful, as organic herbs and spices may be challenging to source.

A challenging opportunity

The U.S.D.A. requires certified organic products to have at least 95% organic ingredients in order to have the official organic seal on the package. There is an approved National List of allowed non-organically produced agricultural-based ingredients for use in certified organic foods. Herbs and spices are not on the list, which means foods certified organic may only contain organically certified herbs and spices.

“There are several factors that make sourcing organic ingredients challenging. First and foremost, there simply might not be a crop available in the quantity that brands demand,” said Ilana Orlofsky, marketing coordinator, Imbibe, Niles, Ill. “In addition, crops vary season to season and year to year. Taste profiles may differ, which makes it harder to create a standardized, uniform product.”

This is true of conventional herbs and spices, as well; however, with conventional products, suppliers have the option to blend ingredients to replicate a specific taste profile. Because organic options are more limited, this may not be a viable solution.

Drought and wildfires may have a significant impact on the availability of organic chile peppers.
 

“Non-organic herbs and spices are prone to the same natural variability as their organic counterparts,” said Kurt Christensen, research and development manager, LifeSpice Ingredients, Chicago. “But non-organic sources are often blends, so it is easier to have consistent flavor and color, not to mention reliable year-round supply. Organic herbs and spices by contrast are often single sourced, so the color, flavor and availability vary from one part of the year to the next, and from one crop year to the next.”

Simone Cormier, national spice coordinator, Allegro Coffee Co., Thornton, Colo., a subsidiary of Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, said, “Supply is struggling. It’s not just organic herbs and spices; conventional ones are, too. Most of these flavorful ingredients are grown in tropical and third-world countries, and the labor pool is dwindling in these regions. Further, crops are suffering because of climate change.

“In addition, many farmers are selling land to developers and moving away from what is a very time- and labor-intensive profession. Some farmers find it attractive to switch to competitive crops that are easier to grow, less labor-intensive and require less investment.”

Another contributing factor to limited supplies is what the spice industry refers to as “the globalization” of the way people around the world now eat. Flavor cravings are not exclusive to the U.S.

“Demand for spices continues to grow globally,” said Ms. Cormier. “Demand is skyrocketing in ‘new’ markets, areas where certain spices were not traditionally consumed but have become recently popular. And producing countries are consuming more, with many having more than doubled their consumption of some spices in the past 20 years.”

Sustainability is also directly connected to the story of supply and demand, according to Ms. Cormier. “Sustainability covers many angles,” she said. “One is developing strong partnerships in the supply chain, including with the farmers themselves and their communities.”

To do this, some food manufacturers have developed spice projects with grower communities; others buy their own farms. It’s all about building strong relationships.

“Long-term contracts with suppliers provide reassurance,” said Ms. Cormier. “It’s important to invest and give back to the community as well. Provide growers resources to build a well, to build a road. This helps the community and the farm.”

Securing your supply

The organic prepared foods industry — industrially packaged products as well as commissary-produced fresh foods — is still emerging. Ingredient supply limits label claims, with many complex products — for example, frozen lasagna — only able to make a “made with organic ingredients” claim. Many of the companies striving for an “organic” claim are small entrepreneurs who are not able to project marketplace buy-in and therefore unable to provide suppliers with long-term contracts or even projected needs.

“From a supplier standpoint, an early understanding of the projected needs of the herbs and spices from the food manufacturer is most helpful,” said Gary Augustine, executive director-market development, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich. “Establishing or developing the growing pipeline for these herbs and spices can take time to set up and establish proper growing conditions. The more advanced commitment or lead time allows the supplier to plan for these conditions.”

Convincing customers to change their purchasing schedules and move to a seasonal or annual buying plan rather than spot inquiries would also help improve supply, according to Sayil Gundem, sales manager, Kutas Group, Turkey.

“It is evident that organic spices need to be handled differently from conventional spices,” he said. “They are not available off the shelf,” he said. “They require advance planning, cultivation and production. All of the organic herbs and spices we sell need to be pre-contracted.”

Products like frozen lasagna that use non-organic spices may only make a "made with organic ingredients" claim.
 

To ensure supply of organic certified black pepper, for example, Doens Food Ingredients, The Netherlands, sources product from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Tanzania.

“To further grow supply, we are now assisting farmers with their organic certification in Cambodia, Nepal and Uganda,” said Akbar Mirzada, trader at Doens. “Aside from helping farmers in different regions, this approach also helps us reduce certain risks such as bad weather conditions that can cause major crop issues and quality problems.”

For example, strong winds, hot temperatures and a prolonged drought have led to some of the most disastrous wildfires in Chilean history. Since the beginning of the year, more than 100 wildfires have spread rapidly across vegetation that has been dried by unseasonably high temperatures. This will likely have a significant impact on the availability of all chile peppers and is a real-time example of how suppliers and food manufacturers can assist by providing aid to the farmers.

Once growers are certified organic, they continue to face challenges that might limit supply. For example, a farmer in South America may have no control over chemical pesticides sprayed by government planes. Or organic farms located near conventional ones may risk contamination.

“We have already come across farmers who had to de-certify their entire crop and sell their product in the conventional market,” said Mr. Mirzada. “These unavoidable situations are unfortunately causing some organic farmers to convert back to conventional growing methods, further impairing supply.”

Still, farmers realize there is a growing demand for organic, and, if done right, it can be a very profitable business. Many suppliers are assisting farmers by guiding them with certification, providing sowing seeds, ensuring orders and offering financial assistance.

“When a farmer has been cultivating using pesticides, and we talk to them about converting to organic, they are sometimes reluctant due to investment of time and money,” said Guillermo Molina Bernal, vice-president, Sabater Spices North America Inc., Miami. “Without education and proper resources, they risk making the investment and still losing their crop because of contamination. But there are also well-experienced and dedicated organic farmers who love to grow and do it well. They usually have almost their entire crop contracted for and sold before growing.

“Some crops, such as nutmeg, are easy to find in organic form, as they grow wild in the jungle with no pesticide contamination, so they just need to be documented and then certified. Others, such as chilies, are very difficult to source because they often grow close to conventional chile crops and cross contamination is very common. That’s when it makes sense to own your own farms.”

Organic is worth it

When organic herbs and spices are available, many chefs and food manufacturers say there’s no going back. Although price is always a consideration, proper planning and contracts can assist.

“The high-quality, certified-organic seasonings that go into our new organic spreadable cheeses are much cleaner and more robust than conventional seasonings,” said Karine Blake, director of marketing, Lactalis American Group Inc., New York. “Our customers are asking for more organic options. It can be difficult to source the ingredients, but we’re making small steps to eventually providing a comprehensive selection of organic products.”

Since August 2016, Président offers Organic Rondelé Gourmet Spreadable Cheese in Garlic & Herbs and Garden Vegetable varieties. The company plans to grow the line as organic ingredients become more available.

“Organic herbs and spices simply taste much better than conventional products,” agreed Raju Boligala, chief executive officer and president of High Quality Organics, Reno, Nev. “They are void of chemical cleaners and pesticides, and their true flavors come out. They are grown in living, biodynamic soil, which contributes to their full flavor.”

Most herbs and spices are sterilized to eliminate spoilage organizations and pathogens. This may be achieved by one of three processes and is typically performed where product is grown. Historically the most common sterilization technique has been irradiation, followed by chemical gas sprays. Only the third — steam — is permissible for organic herbs and spices.

“As more people understand the benefit of organics, demand will grow,” said Mr. Boligala. “Organic is the way Mother Nature intended for us to eat.”

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