Organic Consumers Association

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OCA Will Protest at Nation's Largest Organic and Natural Products Trade Show

When Michael Besancon attended the first Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, in 1981, he was thrilled just to be in a room full of people who were in the same business as he - growing, selling and marketing healthy foods.

"In the very beginning, the concept of a Natural Products Expo was unique, because there was a movement but not an industry," said Besancon, who then ran a natural-foods store in Canoga Park.

Although Besancon, 63, says he still has long hair and a beard (now gray), he's gone corporate, as senior global vice president of purchasing, distribution and marketing for Whole Foods. The industry has matured, too, and is now accounts for $110 billion a year in sales. Natural Products Expo West is one of the must-attends for people in the business. The event, a combination of trade show and educational programming that begins in earnest Friday and runs through Sunday, will showcase more than 1,700 companies across a million feet of floor space at the Anaheim Convention Center. More than 70 Orange County companies will exhibit wares ranging from snacks, drinks and nutritional supplements to cleaning sprays, beauty products and pet food.

"Once we were crying in the wilderness, and now you could argue that we're mainstream," Besancon said.

Despite flat attendance last year, a pullback the organizers attribute to the recession, more than 50,000 people - makers, buyers and other industry insiders - are expected to attend the expo to try to figure out what customers want and how to get it to them. The show is not open to the general public.

Fred Linder, president of New Hope Media, which puts on the event, says the bad economy is still on people's minds. He expects supplements to be big this year, partly because consumers are trying to stay healthy and avoid expensive trips to the doctor.

"The economy has actually gotten people to be more into self-care," Linder said, adding that sales of organic foods are up 5-6 percent despite the malaise across the economic spectrum. "Consumers are getting more educated," Linder added. "A lot of people can't afford health care, they can't afford to get sick. People who used to go out and eat a lot are cooking at home, and using organics."

With maturation, however, come growing pains. The Expo will again be a target of protesters from the Organic Consumers Association, who contend that shampoo, makeup and other personal care products at such shows are labeled as organic without adequate controls.

"The problem is that many companies are using the word 'organic' without actually being certified to the organic standard," said the group's political director, Alexis Baden-Myer. "It greatly disadvantages companies that do certify, and it's also very confusing to consumers."

She'll be among 10 to 15 protesters outside the Expo, some costumed as giant shampoo bottles.

"From my perspective, it shows the trade show is alive and well," Linder said. "The community comes together, and, as with any community, there are differences of opinion. People have a right to have differences of opinion."
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