Re: Food Quality

Hi Chris.  Interesting post.  Especially at this time, since a number of
members of SANET are attending a conference whose subject is close to what
youre talking about.  I am copying the beginning of the 'call for papers'
for your information.
  International Conference on 
  Boston, Massachusetts, USA   March 19-21, 1997 

  Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture

  Papers are invited for a conference on how the nutritional value
  and safety of food is affected by the methods used to raise it.
  We are especially interested in alternative production systems
  that can provide more wholesome and healthful foods. 

  The conference is intended for researchers, agricultural
  producers, consumer groups, the food processing and marketing
  industry, and agencies concerned with agricultural policy. 


   o Effects of specific crop production techniques, such as crop
     variety, pesticide applications, and amount and type of
     fertilizer, on the nutritional value of foods and the
     occurence of undesirable substances

   o Effects of different livestock production practices on the
     healthfulness of meat, milk and eggs

   o Health and nutritional implications of reduced-chemical,
     organic, and alternative agricultural systems

   o Effects of crop production methods on storage qualities and
     post-harvest changes in nutritional value

   o Nutritional implications of obtaining foods from local
     versus distant sources

   o Relationship between the quality of the soil and the quality
     of the foods produced from it

   o Quality in the marketplace: Consumers' perceptions of the
     quality of food produced by different methods

   o Nutritional and food quality implications of other market
     demands on farm products, such as processing
     characteristics, appearance, or suitability for long-
     distance transportation 

   o Is there a tradeoff between high production and high
     quality, and if so, how might it be avoided?

   o The role of government agencies in promoting agricultural
     systems that produce healthful and nutritious foods.

Since I am an economist, I certainly can't help with your question from a
hard science perspective.  But I can relate our results of our 'scientific'
study of consumers' subjective impressions of organics.

There have been many efforts to quantify nutritional differences between
organic and regular produce.  An article by Joan Gussow in last Fall's
Organic Farming Research Foundation Newsletter addressed the issue in an
interesting way...basically saying that the most impt reasons for eating
organic is for the environment (externalities as far as consumers are

Research that my colleagues and I have done, and more recent surveys done by
the Packer magazine as well, suggest that 'quality,' is the most important
reason  given by consumers of organics for paying the premium involved.  In
this case, quality translates into expectations about the pleasure of
consmuming the food. 

While I personally feel that the environmental and ethical reasons justify
the premia, I guess that I think enjoyment of food is important too! So, I
think that you are on to something.  There are many consumers out there
whose experience suggests a quality difference between organic and
conventional produce.  

Moreover, there are chefs of very expensive restaurants who insist on
organic fresh produce as ingredients. One reason given is that flavor is

In the 1991 survey that we did, the most frequent buyers of organic produce
were  most likely to give flavor as a reason for buying organic.  

There have been double blind tests that try to test the difference, and
these have had pretty indefinite results.  Actually, I think Gussow's
article refers to some of these.  

I have a hypothesis that one way for smaller producers to survive/thrive is
to emphasize very high quality. As long as it is possible for consumers to
tell the difference easily, they will be willing to pay a significant
premium.  Right now, 'organic' is tending to become synonomous with 'high
quality' in the eyes of a sizeable minorty of American consumers.  That is
very clear (and statistically significant) in the Packer's 1996 Fresh Trends

Furthermore, I suspect you are correct and that eventually we will be able
to do physical tests that explain why some people with sophisticated
pallettes insist that organics taste better. 

Thank you for the stimulating post.

Ed Sparling
Dept of Ag and Resource Econ
B-311 Clark Blg
Colorado State University
Ft Collins, CO   80523

Phone 970-491-6946
Fax   970-491-2067