Suitability of Frozen Cascadian 
Farms Organic Berries for Use 
by Raw Foods Eaters
 

Background and Overview
Many of us on the RVAF diet, although we try to eat only foods which have not been previously frozen, must use such frozen foods when the item is out of season or otherwise unavailable.  Many of us who like to eat berries year-round must often rely upon frozen berries.  Most of us have been using Cascadian Farms berries because they are organic and seem to be of high quality.  However, a number of folks in the raw foods world had also begun expressing doubts about the quality (mainly: "are they truly unheated?") of Cascadian Farms (CF) berries, largely because of fears that quality control may have been compromised by their recent purchase by General Mills.

Spurred by my own curiosity, some concerns of Aajonus about the status (truly unheated) of frozen berries in general, and by the concerns of a few members of the Live-foods list about the Cascadian Farms organic berries (all their berries, including the berry mix), I decided to do some research to make sure that:

1) Cascadian Farms really does not heat their (to-be-frozen) berries in any way
2) that their quality control or processes have not been compromised by their recent purchase by General Mills
Frankly, I suspect that most of the level of concern I had been hearing on this topic has been due to the fact that some folks may be very wary of a large corporation (GM) purchasing a relatively small organic producer, and they may have concerns about quality control and adherence to good organic procedures.  Some additional concern may be engendered by the fact that we have all been misled at times, if only accidentally, by producers of supposedly "raw and unheated" goods, whether the product be raw unheated honey, raw cheese, or raw butter.

My research first started with a chat with the farm manager at the original Cascadian Farms farm in Oregon.  Next, I proceeded to trying to get past the front-line customer service representatives who staff the Cascadian Farms toll free (800) Consumer Information telephone line, to access folks who knew more and who had greater responsibility.  I finally got a callback one morning from a production specialist for Cascadian Farms named Mike, who provides a link for passing information from the QA (Quality Assurance) and R&D (Research & Development) departments to Cascadian Farm's Consumer Information folks, and we had several conversations over a five-day period.  Cascadian Farms has both a QA department as well as an R&D department, Mike is in touch with each team on virtually a daily basis, and the QC/QI functions are in many ways spread across these three entities (QA, R&D and Mike). 

My sources for the information below are primarily my five conversations with Mike, with some filler from the production manager for the original Cascadian family farm, who has been on the job for 8 years.  I have chosen not to use any of the information I received directly from the customer service representatives at Cascadian Farm's 800 number over the past two weeks, in order to ensure greater accuracy, unless it was checked and verified by Mike.  Mike, for his part, had double-checked all the answers which he had given to me with Cascadian Farms' QA and R&D departments. 

Quick Summary 
For those with little patience (or poor literacy!), let me summarize, before we get into detail, that I am now extremely sure that Cascadian Farms does not in any way allow their organic berries (or cherries) to be heated in any way prior to freezing, and I plan to continue using their frozen organic berries as an adjunct to my raw diet, particularly for pulling certain toxins out of the body (and because they taste good!).

The Detail -- All of It!
First, some detail on the relationship between Cascadian Farms (CF) and General Mills (GM).  GM purchased CF early in the year, because, all parties agree, CF was a premiere organic producer known for high quality, and GM wished to enter the organic marketplace with a strong and proven product line and organization behind it.  From the beginning, CF (along with Muir Glen, another organic label) has been maintained by GM under the name "Small Planet" as an individual, wholly-owned subsidiary of GM.  CF (along with Muir Glen, under the Small Planet name) continues to operate its own production network, management staff, QA department and R&D department.  These are totally separate from the remainder of GM's operations.

All fruits (cherries) and berries picked for processing by CF are produced under strict organic standards and must be from certified organic farms. Most of their cherries and berries come from CF-owned farms in WA and OR, with some coming from certified organic producers in other states, and some even from outside the USA.  Many of their growers are subject to Oregon Tilth standards and certification (which is a 3rd party organic certifier), as well.  In short, the highest temperatures which cherries or berries may reach prior to freezing are the ambient temperatures found in fields (during growing and picking), and ambient temperatures during brief storage and any necessary transport prior to freezing.  All cherries and berries are frozen within 3 days of picking, and are frozen in only two plants (one in WA, the other in OR) both of which are operated by the same 3rd-party company under contract to CF.  Prior to freezing, berries are rinsed in cold water only. 

In addition to the already-discussed scrutiny and certification of the growing process, picking, storage and processing of the berries is also overseen by Oregon Tilth standards (and inspectors) and additionally by both the QA and R&D departments of CF.  Both of the latter-mentioned departments make visits not only to farms, but regular visits to the two processing plants operating under contract to CF.  Incidentally, neither of these processing plants is used by GM for any of their other product lines.  Indeed, a slightly funny side note is that GM has considered using these plants for some of their own non-organic lines as well, but are not yet sure that the plants (while they fully meet organic standards) meet GM's own very strict internal standards for sanitation, mold prevention, allergen control and allergen cross-contamination (e.g., making sure that no trace of blueberry ends up in a blackberry package, or vice versa.) 

I asked a bit hesitantly about what maximum temperatures might be reached by cherries and berries during storage and transport.  I asked this question only hesitantly, because any organic produce ending up in the produce department of your local health food supermarket is going to be subject to the possibility of slightly elevated temperatures during storage and shipping.  I was assured by Mike that fruit or berries destined to be frozen should not be any more liable to damage from such exposure, and indeed, should be somewhat less liable, since the only need to survive for a maximum of three days from picking to time of freezing, as the total transit and storage time is shorter.  Mike's answers gave me no cause for concern.

Incidentally, since there was a big scandal in the organic world a few years ago about a well-known organic nut distributor which was caught accidentally (some say on purpose!) intermingling unorganic nuts with the so-called "organic" nuts on their loading docks, I asked the logical question "How does CF ensure that only the organic berries sent to their processor are used in freezing, and not intermingled with non-organic berries?".  Turns out that this matter is addressed regularly, via protocols and inspections, not only by CF's QA and R&D departments, but also by the Oregon Tilth association, again via published standards as well as on-site inspections.  Mike told me that CF goes one step further, and also frequently performs random tests on berries entering and leaving the freezing and packaging lines to ensure that the berries (and cherries) meet organic standards (no trace of pesticides or certain other substances.)

As a side note, I discovered that all CF cherries and berries are individually quick frozen on the freezing line (I seem to remember that the process is called "IQS") to ensure that they freeze quickly (preserving flavor, shape and color) and to prevent their sticking together in one mass.

Conclusions
Much as I stated above in the Quick Summary section, I am quite satisfied that CF really does take reasonable steps to ensure that their berries and cherries are not heated in any way prior to freezing, that they are truly raw and unheated prior to freezing, and that they are truly organic.

Some of the folks at CF were quite amused at my inquiries, and the fact that I was trying to ensure that their berries are TRULY raw.  It seems that almost all of the inquiries which they receive from consumers are from more conventional users of organic frozen products, and these folks want to be reassured about bacteria (absence of bacteria, that is!)  Specifically, they want to be reassured that the berries are really clean, and are cleaned very well prior to freezing.  Many would prefer to hear that the berries are free of microorganisms.  CF goes out of their way to train their customer service reps on the 800 Consumer Info line meticulously, making sure that they stress that this is essentially a raw product, and is only rinsed on cold water prior to freezing, and while the berries are organic and harvested under reasonably clean conditions, they can make no assurances that the berries are free of bacteria and other microorganisms.  Mike seemed to find it refreshing to be talking with someone who was not at all paranoid about the possible presence of bacteria, and who rather wanted assurances that the product is really as raw and natural, bacteria included!

Although I knew that irradiation is against all organic standards, and, in any case, if a food were irradiated, it would need to bear the (silly little) irradiation label, I asked anyway about this tiny possibility, since several correspondents had expressed worries about this.  The answer, of course, was that Cascadian Farms has never irradiated anything, that it is against all organic standards and (in some states) laws.  In any case, they pointed out, it would be sure suicide for any supplier of organic or even "natural" foodstuffs to try to irradiate the food and then market it as such in the natural foods marketplace -- they would be laughed all the way to
Istanbul.


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