USDA Certified Organic Restaurants

A friend [Stevie!] sent me this article from the Chicago Tribune. As it’s a subscriber site, here it is in its entirety. Looks like the Chicago foodie scene is really getting on board with local, which is great. But did you know USDA is certifying organic restaurants? I zoomed around a bit on the net but didn't find much more info, not yet anyway. If you've heard anything more about this, I'd love to hear it.

When restaurants go green
Variations in terms can feed confusion

By Trine Tsouderos
Tribune staff reporter

April 19, 2007

Sometimes it feels like you need a degree in environmental science to figure out what to eat.

Local? Organic? Certified organic? Fair trade? Direct trade? Clean? Natural? Sustainable?

What does it all mean?

We feel your pain, dear diner. It's confusing. And this enigma is no longer confined to your local Jewel or Whole Foods. These labels are popping up on restaurant menus throughout Chicago too.

"This is a movement that is exploding," said Jim Slama, president of Sustain, a locally based non-profit that, among other things, helps match local farmers with restaurants. "There has been a seismic shift culturally."

By the end of this year, Chicago will have two U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic eateries -- the Bleeding Heart Bakery and Crust. We've got restaurants, like Terragusto, that emphasize local ingredients, and others, like Leona's, that promise organics. Leona's also brags that your food will be free of "genetically modified organisms."

And then there are restaurants, like Big Bowl, that proudly proclaim dishes made from ingredients that are "naturally raised." Run into Starbucks and you may see coffee labeled "fair trade," while Intelligentsia serves up steaming cups of "direct trade" brew.

Over the next months, At Play will publish stories on responsible dining, defining terms that are showing up on menus and offering insight into claims by opponents and proponents.

We hope to help you make decisions about how to "eat clean," as Crust co-owner Michael Altenberg puts it.

"I am sure it can be confusing for consumers," said Barbara Hausmann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, a Greenfield, Mass.-based business association. "Different labels mean different things. What is 'natural'? Well, it depends on who is claiming what. Natural can still be made from conventionally made products."

The more you know, the more difficult the decision seems to become. Take, for example, organic and local.

Then: USDA-certified organic meant good for you, good for the Earth. Now: Some people are saying certified organic might not be as good as non-certified organic, local food.

"If you buy certified organic strawberries grown in California out of season, they have to be trucked here over 3,000 miles," said Theo Gilbert, co-owner of Terragusto. Using all that fuel to deliver the berries is as bad for the planet as spraying your crops with pesticides, he said.

Gilbert said diners often ask what on the menu is organic. At that point, his servers have to explain that local doesn't mean certified organic, but that at his restaurant, local means that Gilbert hand-picked the farmer and trusts the way he or she has grown his food. Servers "have to do it very simply and quickly and nonchalantly," he said. "It is hard to do."

Organic, he said, is not the key to solving our health and environmental problems. "Local really is the key."

Three miles south of Terragusto is Crust, which, when it opens in May, will be one of just a handful of USDA-certified organic restaurants in the nation.

Altenberg, the restaurant's co-owner, said getting that certification, which guarantees 95 percent of ingredients are certified organic, was worth the extra time, money and effort because he thinks it will pay off and believes organic just plain tastes better. "It is worth it," he said. "We are really doing something special."

For Altenberg and Michelle Garcia, owner of the Bleeding Heart Bakery, that means getting affidavits guaranteeing non-organic produce did not mingle with certified organic stuff in delivery en route to the restaurants. And allowing inspectors to check receipts against deliveries to ensure that the restaurant or bakery didn't buy a few pounds of organic flour and 50 pounds of conventional flour and still label the products "organic" on the menu.

That happens, he said. "A lot of people are putting things down on the menu and unless you are truly certified, nobody ever checks that."

This dilemma is a by-product of a happy blooming of dining options for people who want to eat responsibly.

"Consumers want this," Hausmann said. "They want to feel connected to their food."

Even if that means, with perusing a menu, the generation of a local, organic, hopefully not-sustainable headache. A headache that can be eased, perhaps, by a plate of delicious, healthy, guilt-free food.


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