How Important is Organic Certification? At Nature's Prime Organic, The Answer is "Very"

Nature’s Prime Organic (NPO) Foods, an online source for buying organic meats and natural seafood, functions a bit like the hippie buying clubs that were so popular in the ’70s and ’80s. Then and now, buying clubs harness the power of collective purchasing and make hard-to-source foods available to more people.

Although they offer some organic vegetables and a little naturally raised seafood, the people at NPO clearly carry a torch for Certified Organic Meat. Unlike most Twin Cities co-ops and grocery stores that stock more naturally-raised meats than Organically Certified meats (in large part because of the prohibitive costs of the latter), NPO only offers meat that has been raised on organic feed and organic farmland and has passed through the hoops of government-approved organic inspection.

NPO was founded in 2007 by a group of friends and parents who were frustrated with the lack of organic protein options for their families. Since then, more organic and natural meats have appeared in stores, but you can still see the original impetus behind Nature’s Prime: lots of organic hot dogs, pre-sliced lunch meats, and tidbits called “snackers” – smoked chunks of meat for between-meal grazing.

In addition to a huge, comprehensive, family freezer pack, you will see cuts suited for quick, after-work dinners (boneless pork chops, sausages, lamb kabobs, boneless skinless chicken breasts), but few meats suited to longer cooking (no pork butt or ribs, no legs of lamb, no whole chickens).

Their beef shows more variety. They carry a range of steaks, roasts, and ground beef, all of which have been selected from organic Midwestern farms, and pastured and grass-finished.

The site also offers a few cool finds that you don’t often see in the Twin Cites: fresh, never-frozen shrimp, for example. Fresh shrimp have a buttery pop that frozen shrimp never regain, no matter how carefully you thaw and prepare them. These are raised naturally for Nature’s Prime in Texas, in a special closed-loop saltwater tank that uses ionized water, and will arrive at your door within 24 hours of harvest.

My beef with NPO lies with its website, which rarely lists specific provenance for any of the meats. Sometimes a description might offer that it comes “from a Midwestern farm,” but if I hadn’t spoken to the marketing manager who told me that the beef comes from a Wisconsin/Minnesota collective known as Heavenly Farms and is processed by Steve Roman of Whitetail Country Meats in Hayward, Wisconsin, I might have thought that it came from the great organic warehouse in the sky.

Then again, at these prices, this may very well be food for the gods. Ribeyes are $27.00 for two 12-ounce steaks, or about $17 a pound; a five-pound sirloin roast costs $45. But this isn’t the fault of Nature’s Prime; that’s just what organic stuff goes for. In fact, if you buy in bulk at Nature’s Prime, the price decreases significantly: 15 percent off for orders over $200, 20 percent off for orders over $500, and so on. So for those whose commitment to organic meat is butchering their budget, this site will offer some real savings.

For all the good intentions of NPO – its goal is to bring more healthful food to more people – I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness as I click through the offerings. I’m not sure exactly why; like them, I believe in eating meat that comes from small family farms, raised by people who care about both taste and animal husbandry.

But what I think I fear is that a large, organized system of frozen organic distribution, such as that used by Nature’s Prime, proves what some food advocates cautioned against when the USDA adopted organic standards in 2002 – that the rigorous bureaucracy of certification would cause organic food to resemble conventional food, e.g. deep-frozen and accustomed to long-distance traveling.

For example, when you have to ship your meat to another state so that it can be processed in one of the few certified organic processing facilities in the Midwest, where it is then frozen and shipped back to the purveyor, can it still be considered local? And what about all the carbon emissions required to earn that “USDA Organic” certification? Furthermore, in addition to adding costs to organic food, the new stringent laws interrupt the simple, peaceful exchange between the small farmer and the buying public.

If you want to eat organically, buying clubs such as NPO may be the best option for you now – but I’ll never stop dreaming of the day when fresh, never-frozen organic meat really hits it big, flooding meat cases everywhere.

(Nature's Prime Organics will host its own "Organic Health Summit," Thursday, March 18,
from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at The Bluffs in Eden Prairie. There is no charge to attend.
For more information, call 952-556-0007.)

Amy Thielen
worked in New York for 8 years, cooking with celebrity chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. She also developed recipes for
Country Living Magazine, tested recipes for Martha Stewart, and worked on two cookbooks. Now, she lives with her husband and son in Park Rapids, Minnesota, in a house so lodged in the woods that the wolves' howls are louder than her neighbor's barking dog. She teaches cooking classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, writes food stories for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and keeps a blog called Sourtooth.