A little over 7 months ago, (May 10th to be exact), Stonewall Kitchen embarked on a quest – a quest to become organic certified. Why? Because we had heard from our guests that this was a gap in our product portfolio that they wanted us to fill. We looked around and were surprised to discover that organics had become one of the largest and fastest growing categories of specialty (and even ‘everyday’) foods in the marketplace, and we were conspicuously missing. So, we did what we always do: we listened to our loyal guests, and went about fulfilling their request.
And this is how we did it!
First, we researched what ‘organic’ was all about: what did that term signify in terms of the rules and regulations and what exactly were those rules and regulations? Who was in charge of awarding certification? What would it take for us to become certified? How much time would it take? What products would we choose to make and where would we get the organic ingredients from, assuming they were even available? And that was just the beginning…
Let’s take a step back to the first question – what does it mean to be ‘organic?’ According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP): “organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices.” In order to produce and market organic products in the United States, a food manufacturer must become certified by a USDA-accredited organic certification agent. In our case, MOFGA, or ‘Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener’s Association.’ They annually review the practices of farms and food processors to help assure the public that food labeled as “certified organic” (indicated either by the USDA organic logo, the MOFGA certified logo, or both) meets nationally accepted organic standards.
Manufacturers must adhere to strict production guidelines, and employ stringent pest management practices. All necessary measures must be taken to prevent the commingling of organic products with non-organic products and prohibited substances. Organic ingredients must be stored separately and organic food production must be scheduled at different times from non-organic production to assure mixing never occurs. Organic manufacturers are required to keep detailed logs of almost every aspect of their operations, which are reviewed annually by certifying agents who also perform annual on-site inspections (both scheduled and ‘surprise’ inspections).
We also had to consider what level of organic we were going to be. There are ‘levels’ of organic labeling, including:
- “100% Organic” – every ingredient in the product is certified organic and is allowed to use the USDA Organic Seal.
- “Organic” – 95% of the ingredients (and 100% of the agriculturally-derived ingredients) are certified organic. The other 5% are organic compliant. All organic ingredients must be labeled as such in the ingredients section of the packaging. This level is also allowed to use the USDA Organic Seal.
- The remaining two levels contain 70% or less organic ingredients, and therefore can only use “made with organic ingredients” on their labels and are prohibited from using the USDA Organic Seal.
We definitely wanted to use the USDA Organic Seal on our labels, but were limited by the fact that there are no organic pectins available, which of course is an essential ingredient in our jams and jellies. Since pectins are organic compliant, and we use far less than 5% in our formulas, we went the ” 95% organic” route.
Our next step was developing the recipes that not only met organic requirements, but also met our high quality standards. Decisions were made not just on what flavors we felt would be the most desirable, but also what ingredients were available in organic form and were available in bulk quantities. The list started out long, but eventually was whittled down to four flavors, two sweet and two savory jams:
- Organic Maine Blueberry Cherry – loaded with ripe, sweet and truly compatible flavors of organic cherries and wild Maine blueberries, this jam boasts that delicious, farm-stand-fresh flavor that will bring everyday breakfast breads, hot cereal and good ‘ol PB&Js to life!
- Organic Strawberry Vanilla – made with sweet, ripe and organically grown strawberries and vanilla. It’s a delicious blend of flavors that’s reminiscent of fresh strawberries and cream, and has an irresistible sweetness that’s a natural for breakfast breads, in hot cereal or in desserts.
- Organic Sweet Chili – a unique jam, made from bold jalapenos, savory red bell peppers, pure cane sugar and spices. The result is a delicious jam that’s not too hot, not too sweet and a real treat on crackers with cheese, or used as a pan sauce.
- Organic Maple Apple Onion – distinct layers of flavor created by a wonderful array of ingredients that include sweet maple syrup, Granny Smith apples, onions and spices. It’s a versatile and savory jam that goes great with cheese, on crackers or even as a topping on ice cream!
In July, we submitted an 11 page Organic Handling Plan, along with several hundred pages of support documents and our mock labels to MOFGA for review and approval of Stonewall Kitchen as a Certified Organic Processor. Our application was approved about a month later, and our facility was audited by an organic inspector at the end of August from top to bottom. Three weeks later, we received official notice that we had passed and were certified to produce the 4 organic jams we selected for our initial launch.
Our production date is set for the end of this month and we are very excited to share them with you! We are already planning the next assortment of organic products (sauces and dressings) to launch in July. Stay tuned for what we’re working on next!
For more information about organic products in general, including inspection and certification information, we recommend that you visit this website.