MOLLIE STONE'S ROLLS OUT PESTICIDE-FREE PRODUCE

MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- Mollie Stone's Markets has introduced a selection of produce items certified by a third party to be free of pesticide residues.On its Web site, the upscale Bay Area independent touted the program, dubbed "Clean Greens" throughout the chain's seven stores, as an addition to its conventional and organic produce offerings. The company noted the pesticide-free designation indicates

MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- Mollie Stone's Markets has introduced a selection of produce items certified by a third party to be free of pesticide residues.

On its Web site, the upscale Bay Area independent touted the program, dubbed "Clean Greens" throughout the chain's seven stores, as an addition to its conventional and organic produce offerings. The company noted the pesticide-free designation indicates the fruits and vegetables have met a standard that is "up to a thousand times tougher than the EPA's." Normally, the stores will offer 25 to 30 different items that have been certified at the grower level as being free of pesticides.

The independent is one of the latest supermarket companies to contract with Scientific Certification Systems, the Emeryville, Calif.-based, third-party evaluation and certification firm that works with hundreds of large growers around the world to achieve high yields of produce grown without the use of toxic, hard-to-degrade pesticides. In 1984, SCS's trademarked NutriClean program became the nation's first third-party certification system for testing pesticide residues in fresh produce.

"The NutriClean program helps demonstrate that we're serious about tackling the tough issues of pesticide residues in foods, and that we're willing to go further than any other grocer in our area," said Michael Stone, co-owner of Mollie Stone's.

SCS sample takers visit growers' fields, take samples of product, seal the samples in bags, and ship them to appropriate labs for testing. The firm certifies growers on a field-by-field basis, a company spokesman told SN. SCS then provides retailer clients with bi-weekly reports listing the available items that meet SCS's standard, and leaves it to the retailers and growers to work out terms of sale.

Today, fruits and vegetables with the NutriClean logo are available in 400 to 500 stores, including West Coast chains such as Raley's, Ralphs Supermarkets and Fred Meyer.

The pesticide-free produce is intended to complement the extensive organic produce offerings available in the stores, officials at Mollie Stone's said. On its Web site, the retailer explained the difference between organic produce and NutriClean produce, noting the NutriClean designation means the produce has been laboratory tested and found to be free of pesticide residues. Organic produce refers to a growing method, without synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, but makes no claim or test of the final product, the company noted.

A SCS spokesman told SN the company isn't trying to compete with the organic produce industry.

"We're not trying to convince them NutriClean is better,"said Jeff Stephens, SCS's communications director. "We want to give shoppers residue-free food at market prices."

While consumers often pay a premium for organic produce, the price differential between conventional and pesticide-free produce is minimal, Stephens said.

Research has shown that a key reason consumers buy organic merchandise is their concern about the presence of chemicals on their food, suggesting there could be a healthy market for pesticide-free produce.

"Consumers are talking about the pesticide issue. That translates into their talking to retailers about what they're offering," Stephens told SN.

In certain markets, NutriClean produce has a loyal following. Back in the 1980s, West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley's introduced produce certified by SCS to be free of pesticides, and today carries a sizeable and varied assortment of the fruits and vegetables.

"Our customers just love it," said Raley's spokeswoman Carolyn Konrad. "It's been a huge success."

SCS, acting on behalf of Mollie Stone's, also tests produce at the wholesale produce terminal in San Francisco for pesticides known to pose the greatest risk to human health -- some of which are not covered under routine government tests.