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Where You Bin?

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To many health- and eco-conscious consumers, organic foods and bulk bins seem made for each other. Shopping in bulk gives us the option of buying two kilos of rice flour or 10 grams of dried organic blueberries without excessive packaging.

To many health- and eco-conscious consumers, organic foods and bulk bins seem made for each other. Shopping in bulk gives us the option of buying two kilos of rice flour or 10 grams of dried organic blueberries without excessive packaging.

Then there’s the single most popular reason for shopping in bulk - the price. “For a lot of people, our bulk department is a destination,” says Peter Collinson, grocery and bulk foods manager at Capers Community Market in Vancouver. “The price difference is phenomenal between bulk and packaged foods.”

But while buying organics in bulk is cost-efficient and environmentally friendly, the practice is not without its hazards. Improper handling and storage can pose real health risks, as can “grazers” sneaking the occasional handful of treats. So what should shoppers look for in a bulk organic retailer to minimize risks and enjoy the rewards?

First Impressions

A quick look around will reveal a lot about the way a store approaches the process of selling food in bulk. Is store staff available and willing to answer questions? Is there a distinct organic section, or are organic product bins bumping up against nonorganics?

Better Bins

Look for smaller bins, which can be emptied and cleaned more often than barrel-sized tubs. Gravity-fed bins, which are filled from the top and dispense foods from a spout on the underside, keep products from being “buried” when bins are topped up with fresh supplies.

Informed Staff

“We make sure that our bulk department staff is well-trained, well-informed, and above all, available,” says Adam Fischler, manager of the bulk department at La Montanita Co-op Natural Foods Market in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fischler encourages employees to research bulk products online, and to add new resources to the staff reference library.

Clear Standards

A clear policy on organic and natural foods shows that store staff members take their responsibilities seriously. In a growing number of organic markets across North America, all organic products in the store must be labelled and third-party certified as organic.

There is a perception that the organic label just means something was grown on an organic farm, but the whole process, from certified farm to store, has to be organic. It is imperative that organics and nonorganics are kept separate when they’re being shipped, stored, and displayed in the store.

Consumer Education

A growing number of health food stores provide educational materials about health, nutrition, and the environment and often offer customers access to a variety of brochures, reference books, and pamphlets on natural and organic foods. For example, the Capers in-house publication World Tastes, a guide to buying and preparing bulk foods, contains great recipes and detailed nutritional information.

The bottom line: organic markets across Canada offer some of the safest, most wholesome foods available in bulk. If you care about the food you eat, buy it from people who care what they sell.

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