The P6 label, being rolled out Saturday at Seward Co-op, aims to spotlight products from small, local suppliers.
Kelsi O’Keefe worked on an order at the deli and bakery counter at Seward Co-op in Minneapolis. The co-op has begun using Principle Six, or P6, labels to promote products from small, local farmers and producers and other co-ops.
Minneapolis' Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli is one of six retail food co-ops nationwide that are rolling out a unique rating system Saturday, an effort to highlight products originating from small, local farmers and food companies, as well as wholesale food co-ops.
The local food movement is hot these days, and co-ops have long focused on local offerings from smaller -- and often organic -- producers. "But we didn't really have a mechanism to tell people who was producing their food," said Tom Vogel, Seward Co-op's marketing manager.
That mechanism is a label affixed directly to the packaging of some food items, or placed on grocery shelves to indicate products nearby meet the rating system's criteria.
The label is emblazoned "P6," which stands for "Principle Six," a nod to the sixth of seven international principles that have guided co-ops of all kinds for over 100 years. The sixth principle is "Cooperation Among Cooperatives."
To get a P6 rating, a product must meet two of three criteria: Be locally grown; originate from a small farm or producer; come from another co-op or nonprofit operation.
At Seward Co-op, locally grown is defined as coming from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota or North Dakota. Also, items with some level of production taking place locally -- beyond simply repackaging -- would be covered, such as coffee grown overseas but roasted locally.
A small farmer or producer is defined as one that's independently owned and operated, and selling directly to a store or through a local distributor. "That one admittedly is subjective," Vogel said. The co-ops haven't established acreage limits or sales ceilings to define small.
The P6 label will be on products that make up about 20 percent of Seward Co-op's selection and 36 percent of its sales, Vogel said. Seward Co-op spent about $15,000 to develop the rating system, and used up 300 hours of staff time on the project.
The rating system has been about two years in the making and is the brainchild of Equal Exchange, a worker-owned wholesale cooperative in West Bridgewater, Mass. Other retail food co-ops participating in the program are in Madison, Wis.; Davis, Calif.; Lawrence, Kan.; Brattleboro, Vt., and Bloomington, Ind.
The co-op's rating program comes against the backdrop of growing interest by major corporations in locally produced and organic foods. For example, Eden Prairie-based Supervalu Inc. has been emphasizing locally grown produce at its supermarket chains across the country, including Cub Foods in the Twin Cities.
And the majority of U.S. organic food sales these days comes from big packaged food companies such as Golden Valley-based General Mills, whose Cascadian Farms organic brand is big in supermarkets and co-ops nationwide. "Nothing against General Mills, but some of these [co-op] ideas have been co-opted by larger corporations," Vogel said.
Laurie Demeritt, president of consulting firm the Hartman Group, said mainstream opinions about food consumption are getting closer to the ideals long espoused by co-ops, and big food players are following consumer sentiment.
"Co-ops need to push the envelope to remain distinct," and the P6 rating system is a way to do that, she said.
Representatives of two other Twin Cities co-ops, the Wedge in Minneapolis and Mississippi Market in St. Paul, were intrigued by Seward's rating system.
"It's certainly innovative what Seward is doing," said Liz McMann, consumer affairs manager at Mississippi Market. "I'm curious to see how it turns out."
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003