This story was updated on Sept. 19, 2012.
Since forming My Organic Market in 1987 as a home delivery company out of his mother’s garage, Scott Nash has seen enough sales to support a ninth store that just opened in Fairfax, Va., and a 10th planned for Waldorf this year.
Nash isn’t too concerned about last week’s review by Stanford University researchers of more than 200 studies that casts some doubt on whether organic foods are “significantly” more nutritious than conventionally grown and raised foods. The study in the Sept. 4 edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine, a journal formed by the American College of Physicians in 1927, does conclude that organic foods might reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
While other studies contradict those findings, the Stanford study was “not necessarily inaccurate,” said Nash, president of the Rockville grocery chain. “But [the Stanford study] only covered a very small part of the benefits of organics.”
Those benefits include lowering the health risks of pesticide and herbicide exposure for both consumers and farm workers, plus less environmental damage than conventional or factory farming creates, Nash said. Then there are the higher quality of organic products, along with organic foods being less likely to be genetically modified and more likely to support small, local farmers and the humane treatment of animals, he said.
Those benefits are at least 90 percent of the reasons Nash said he buys organic foods.
“The nutrition aspect is just a small piece of it,” he said.
U.S. sales of organic products, which are generally grown without synthetically produced pesticides and the use of antibiotics, rose to $28.6 billion in 2010, about double that of 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association of Brattleboro, Vt. The top five organic retailers last year were all major grocers: Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger’s, Target and Safeway.
The association noted that the Stanford study found that conventional produce has a 30 percent higher risk for pesticide contamination than organic food, and that conventionally raised chicken and pork have a 33 percent higher risk for bacteria-related contamination.
“Consumers seeking to minimize their exposure to pesticide residues will find that foods bearing the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] organic label are the gold standard,” Christine Bushway, executive director and CEO of the trade group, said in a statement.
Like many grocers, Giant Food of Landover, which has 171 supermarkets in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C., has its own line of organic foods.
Over the past several years, Giant Food has grown the number of natural and organic options it offers based on customer feedback and preference, as well as "substantially increased" its own Nature's Promise line, spokesman Jamie Miller said in an email.
"We work hard to stock our shelves with the products our customers desire," he said.
Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, which is known for its organic offerings and has numerous Maryland stores, has made such foods into a highly profitable enterprise. For the first nine months of fiscal 2012, its profit rose 32 percent to $353 million from the same period in 2011, and sales increased 13 percent to $8.8 billion. Comparable store sales grew 8.8 percent.
Claudia Raskin, editor of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association’s newsletter, doubts shoppers who buy organic foods are going to change their habits based on the new Stanford study.
“The big deal about eating organic is not eating chemicals,” Raskin said. “There are so many cancer risks anyway.”
MOM’s latest store in in the Merrifield Mosaic District of Fairfax has a grand opening planned for this weekend, with vendor demonstrations, food samples, henna artists and children’s activities. The chain has six stores in Maryland and three in Northern Virginia.