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Smart Buying

Organics in Aisle 9

Mainstream grocers are stocking their shelves with pesticide-free foods.

Used to be you had to belong to a food co-op or pay through the nose at the health-food store for organic foods. Now, everything from organic cauliflower to hot dogs turns up at places such as ballparks and SuperValu, Safeway and Wal-Mart.

SuperValu, for one, is using its size to cut prices at its chain of natural and organic stores, Sunflower Markets. It recently advertised organic broccoli at $1.49 a pound in its Chicago store, while a nearby Whole Foods Market had organic broccoli for $2.19.

At least 200 organic products -- including lower-cost, private-label brands -- are available in supermarkets. Wal-Mart carries its own brand of organic milk and baby formula at rock-bottom prices. Whole Foods created its 365 brand to go head-to-head with cheaper specialty stores.

The terms "natural" and "organic" aren't interchangeable. Only foods labeled "organic" meet USDA standards: no antibiotics, hormones, synthetic fertilizers or conventional pesticides. And despite competition, organic products are not cheap; brand-name organics still command a 25% to 50% premium. Organic produce, now as much as 80% more expensive than ordinary fruits and vegetables, could become less costly.