Food cooperatives offer peace of mind for a price

March 30th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

This week's delivery

This week's delivery

With the arrest of a factory worker in China for the poisoning of frozen gyoza (dumplings) exported to Japan two years ago, the issue of food safety once again makes an appearance in the news. At the time the poisoning came to light there was a concerted push for consumers to buy domestic and for domestic producers to be more honest in the way they presented their merchandise, but once the scare died down most people went back to buying whatever was cheapest, and that usually meant imported from China.

One of the companies that imported the tainted gyoza was Co-op, a food cooperative that is also called Seikyo, which is short for seikatsu kyodo kumiai (life cooperative unions). Traditionally, these organizations were collections of neighbors who bought produce and meat and fish in bulk and then divided the shipment among themselves. These collectives eventually morphed into groups that were structured like membership clubs and in recent decades many have been at the forefront of a kind of back-to-the-land movement, stressing organic farming that uses less or no agrichemicals, fair prices for farmers, and greater environmental awareness in distribution and packaging. The gyoza scandal was thus a huge black eye, at least for Seikyo.

Three of the more conscientious coops available to residents of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area are Pal System (part of Seikyo), Radish Boya and Daichi. The mechanisms are all the same: You order the products you want (mostly food, but also personal care and household products) through order sheets or over the Internet and they are delivered to your home.

Because they are membership organizations they require joining fees (kumiaikin) and annual charges on top of the money you pay for food. These fees sustain the organization and in many cases are refundable. For example, Pal System adds a ¥100 fee to each order that can be refunded twice yearly. Radish Boya is a bit more expensive, charging an annual fee of ¥5,000. Daichi requires an initial fee of ¥5,000 when you join and which is returned to you when you quit (no interest). They also charge an annual non-returnable fee of ¥1,000.

Some people find these fees intolerable, but it should be kept in mind that the purpose of co-ops is not economical. If anything, co-op products tend to be more expensive than what you’d buy in your local supermarket. Rice, for instance, is normally 20 to 50 percent more expensive. The quality is usually better, but not always appreciably so. The advantages are less material.

We use Daichi, whose motto is “protecting the Earth.” In the past, Daichi sold itself on being organic until it was discovered that it wasn’t true — in today’s Japan it’s almost impossible to be 100 percent organic. Now, Daichi’s literature is very careful about just how organic each item they sell is. Every item you buy from the cooperative comes with an explanation about its origin, including a food mileage rating that indicates how much CO₂ was produced shipping it to you. Unlike Seikyo, Daichi deals exclusively with Japanese produce and processed foods. Exceptions are items that foster fair-trade practices, like bananas from the Philippines or coffee from East Timor or olive oil from Palestine. Even the fertilizers that Daichi’s farmers use is supposed to be domestically supplied.

In terms of meat, dairy and poultry, Daichi eggs are from jidori (free range) chickens, meaning they aren’t confined to cages their whole lives. It’s not clear if the beef or pork comes from livestock with similar lifestyles, but in any case members are invited to visit any of the farms or ranches that Daichi buys their food from. Daichi is also directly involved in the anti-nuclear energy movement and all containers and even literature (of which there is a lot) they deliver to your home is picked up the following week to be recycled.

However, most people who subscribe to co-ops like Daichi do so for the sake of convenience rather than as a salve to their consciences. For working people who don’t have time to shop, it’s a big plus to have food delivered literally to your doorstep. (This last detail points to the Japan-specific nature of these co-ops: Deliveries are made during the day and if you’re not home they just leave the stuff in front of your door in the proper cool boxes.) Pal System even offers different order forms depending on your “type of family.”

A common feature are special boxes of vegetables, breads, or meats — for a fixed weekly price, you receive a kind of grab bag of produce that, taken together, is cheaper than what they would cost if bought separately, but the buyer has no choice in the matter. The content is determined by what is in surplus that week, so in the veggie box you tend to get a lot of daikon radishes and happa (leafy vegetables). If you happen to get something that’s normally expensive, like some cherry tomatoes or an apple, then you can expect the volume to be less that particular week. These boxes are good bargains, but they require versatility, since in the end you have to cook all this stuff to make it worth your while, even if you don’t know what it is.

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