SEATTLE (AP) -- Finding organic grapes or poultry has gotten easier in grocery stores across the country -- a very intentional byproduct of a new federal requirement that retailers keep organic and nonorganic foods separate.
Many grocers have reorganized parts of their stores, creating barriers and posting new signs to ensure that food represented as organic isn't contaminated with nonorganic compounds.
''The nonorganic honeycrisp apples can't touch the organic red grapefruit,'' said Dan Johnson, produce coordinator at Seattle's PCC Greenlake store.
The National Organic Program rules, which took effect Oct. 21, prohibit the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge in certified organic production and handling. In general, the use of all synthetic substances are prohibited, along with petroleum-based fertilizers. Animals must be fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones.
And organic food cannot be mixed up with non-organic varieties in stores.
For many shoppers, this provides a guarantee as to how their food has been produced and handled before they load up their grocery carts.
Organics are a potentially lucrative market, with growth in retail sales topping 20 percent annually since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
The USDA certifies farmers and food processors as organic, but certification is not an endorsement of one method of food production over another.
''We're not saying it's healthy or not healthy,'' said Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the USDA in Washington, D.C. ''We're just saying it meets certain criteria.''
Megan Howell, of Seattle, perusing the bright cascade of fruit on display at PCC Greenlake, said organics are important to her because she's pregnant with her first child.
''You don't know what kind of chemicals and pesticides would be on regular fruit,'' she said.
About 90 percent of PCC's produce is organic. The seven-store chain plans to seek certification as an organic retailer.
''It's an extra level of assurance,'' said Trudy Bialic, a spokeswoman for the stores. ''Consumers are basically saying they want to know what is and isn't in their foods. Organic standards give them a very clear statement.''
Bins of organic kale and chard and bags of organic carrots are stacked beneath fluorescent signs designating the organic section of a refrigerated storage room. Only a tiny section, behind the locker door, is marked for nonorganic produce.
In the center of the store, Johnson, the produce coordinator, and his staff have put up foot-high plastic barriers to segregate fruit.
Separate tubs and wash water are used to trim and clean produce, and if an organic display goes in where nonorganics have been, the nonskid mats must be replaced and the area cleaned with a mild bleach solution.
''From farm to fork, you have this level of confidence all along the distribution chain -- confidence there's never going to be any commingling,'' said Joe Hardiman, PCC's produce merchandiser.
Stores found violating the new rules can face heavy penalties -- up to $10,000 in fines.
Dave Craddock, a dentist in Seattle who was checking out the meat counter at PCC Greenlake, said, ''I like the idea of lower pesticide levels and no antibiotics or growth hormones.''
He believes organic food, especially meat, tastes better.
''It's a little more expensive, but I think it's worth it,'' he said.
Organic products are sold in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73 percent of all conventional grocery stores. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in conventional supermarkets than any other venue.
''We've been carrying organic products off and on for decades,'' said Rob Boley, an executive for Portland, Ore.-based Fred Meyer, which has 132 stores in five Western states and is part of the Cincinnati-based Kroger chain.
''We've seen a big increase in popularity in the last couple of years.''
Retailers are generally careful not to play favorites, but some conventional farmers worry that the produce they grow with chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be seen as less healthy, safe or nutritious.
''That's a sore point,'' said Dick Boushey, a Grandview cherry and grape farmer. ''There really is no proof that it's healthier than nonorganic. A carrot is a carrot is a carrot.''
On the Net:
USDA Organic Program: www.ams.usda.gov/nop/
PCC Natural Markets: www.pccnaturalmarkets.com
Fred Meyer stores: www.fredmeyer.com
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