Food scandals help Japan's organic movement grow

December 9, 2002 Agence France Presse by Francoise Kadri and Nao Kaneko

Organic produce is finally taking root in Japan, years behind Europe and the United States, thanks to a recent series of food safety scandals.

Toshiaki Ono, the president of a chain of eight organic food shops around Tokyo called "Mothers", is one of the growing number of entrepreneurs to benefit from the new trend.

He lists the contaminated milk scandal with Snow Brand, the introduction of mad cow disease, Chinese vegetables contaminated with dioxin and false labelling of beef as the most serious food scares to push consumers towards organic produce.

A spokeswoman for the All Japan Natural Health and Foods Association said the outbreak of mad cow disease in September last year had a profound impact on consumers. Japan became the first Asian country known to harbour bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, triggering a nationwide health scare that decimated beef consumption and exports.

"Ordinary people are looking for food safety," the spokeswoman said.

"Shops selling natural food are becoming popular even though there is not such a drastic growth in the figures yet."

Ono, whose Mothers chain is second only to market leader Natural House, is a pioneer of organic produce in a country where consumers balk at the slightest blemish or irregularity in fruit and vegetables.

"I got interested in organic food because I used to work as a kindergarten teacher and I wanted very safe food for the children," he said..

"I started out in 1978 selling chemical-free vegetables from a trolley on the street."

Although there was little awareness among farmers about growing chemical-free food commercially at the time, Ono said he persuaded them to sell him the chemical-free produce they grew for their own consumption.

After almost two decades as a wholesaler, Ono, who is also chairman of the Japan Organic Awareness Association, opened his first organic shop in 1998 and another 22 stores will be opened over the next three years, taking the total to 30.

For the financial year to next March, his company's turnover is expected to reach 3.5 billion yen (28 million dollars), 120 percent more than the previous year, with a six-fold jump in net profits.

Ono visits many of the 1,000 farmers supplying him, and 10 of his 200 workers are employed carrying out on the spot quality control inspections.

A farm ministry survey of 2,300 households published in February found that food safety had overtaken price, a balanced diet and taste as the most important consideration for Japanese consumers.

Even Japan's ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores which, with their shelves stacked with dehydrated pot noodles and other fast foods of questionable nutritional value hardly project an ecological image, are getting in on the organic act.

Second-largest chain Lawson opened its first Natural Lawson outlet in July 2001, featuring a wide range of organic and low-chemical additive products including toiletries as well as fresh fruit and vegetables.

Seven more followed in 2002, and although still regarded as a trial, the company has decided to open another 12 stores by February, according to Lawson spokeswoman Tomoko Hiraishi.

Roughly 60 percent of the customers are women, as opposed to 70 percent men in conventional Lawson stores because "they are more interested and aware of health problems than men," Hiraishi said.

The stores have yet to prove profitable however, because higher staffing levels are needed to cope with more frequent deliveries of fresh vegetables and to run their fresh juice bars, the spokeswoman said.

Despite the recent inroads, space constraints mean organic vegetables still only account for 0.1 percent of vegetable production, 0.04 percent of fruit, 0.09 percent of rice and 0.43 percent of soya production according to the farm ministry.

Processed organic foods such as fruit juices and cereals, meanwhile, have to be imported from Europe, Mexico and the United States because it would be too costly to produce them domestically, according to Ono.

That means the costs are higher for consumers too, with organic products costing between 30 percent and 50 percent more than already expensive intensively cultivated produce, compared with a 15 percent premium in the United States, Ono said.

"In Japan only rich people can afford (organic foods), but in the next five years or so prices will go down... these kinds of shops will expand dramatically."

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