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Archive for Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Healthy foods no longer sitting on sideline

February 22, 2006

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During the past few years, many large supermarkets in the heartland have aggressively been mainstreaming organic produce and expanding the shelving devoted to packaged foods made from organic ingredients.

It was not so long ago that the big chains sequestered organic fruits and vegetables in a low-traffic area of the produce section and hid "health food" in the darkest corner of the store where only unrepentant hippies would seek it out.

Now the organic produce is more likely to be displayed among conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, so that consumers can make side-by-side comparisons of price and quality. Packaged foods may still be in a special section of the store, but that merchandise is now shelved along the major traffic patterns. You might even find a demo lady there, handing out samples of organic snack food.

I was struck about three years ago when I shopped in a Seattle-area supermarket and then a year later in Atlanta to discover how woefully behind we were in mainstreaming organic merchandise. Finally, it appears that regional grocers are catching up - in every area but organic meat products, which apparently are still taboo in cattle country.

Otherwise, organic is in. Just as many stores in northeast Kansas feel obligated to sell fresh fish, the organic inventory is now viewed as a necessary component of the full-service supermarket.

The reason is not very complicated. Depending on which source you use, organic produce and packaged food generate $8 billion to more than $9 billion a year in sales. The Organic Farming Research Foundation reports that while just a sliver of the U.S. food supply is grown organically, annual sales have been rising about 20 percent, making organic an attractive profit center for supermarkets in cities and metro suburbs. For example, one of the booming categories of organic produce is greens, which account for 10 percent of the ready-to-eat salad market.

The 1989 scare involving Alar-sprayed apples is often cited as the watershed that increased the mainstream consumer's interest in organic. Generally, produce, grains and meats that are marketed as organic have not been genetically engineered or irradiated or had contact with synthetic agrochemicals, such as pesticides.

The cost differential between organic and conventional foods has remained a stumbling block for consumers, but there is evidence that the gap is closing. As the market for organics expands, producers can afford to be more price-competitive. While a shopper on a tight budget might not be able to overlook a 10- to 15-cent price difference on organic bananas, the price has dropped over time, and more people are willing to pay for the peace of mind.

Grocers also are now more willing to run specials to promote organic produce and other foods. On several occasions I have noted that the on-sale organic produce was cheaper than conventional. A month or so ago, a supermarket where I shopped had nothing but organic yellow onions to offer. The truck carrying the conventional yellow onions had probably run into a ditch, but there they were, organic onions billed as The Onions We Have in Stock.

At the same time that the price has begun to drop, the visual quality of organic produce has improved. Studies more than a decade ago found that blemishes, bug holes and other "sensory defects" in organic produce were a major turn-off for consumers. Some who were concerned about pesticides simply bought less fresh food rather than buy organic.

Now any discernible difference is minor and is offset by the claims in recent years of chefs and other high-end cooks that the flavor of organic produce is superior. For consumers who are receptive to that message, a blemish is now a sign of authenticity.

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