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Supermarket Chains Join the "Organic Revolution"

Mainstream chains join organic revolution < f_organic_0626.htm
By Susan Salisbury Palm Beach Post Staff Writer (Palm Beach, Florida)
Sunday, June 26, 2005

BOCA RATON < Melvin Markels doesn't want to consume anything that's bad for him. He shuns foods and beverages containing pesticides, chemicals or hormones.

That's why the retired postal worker drives 25 miles from West Palm Beach to Whole Foods Market in Boca Raton every few weeks to load up a shopping cart with organic food such as tomatoes and soy lattes, free-range chickens raised without antibiotics and even natural toothpaste.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy. It's more money, but it's better for you, and it tastes better, too," the 64-year-old Markels said during a recent visit to the Whole Foods store, the only outlet the Austin, Texas-based chain has in Palm Beach County or on the Treasure Coast.

Better for you, and it tastes better: That, in an unprocessed nutshell, is what's driving the quest for organic food and beverages right into the heart of the American mainstream.

The Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., projects sales of organic foods and beverages in the United States will reach $15 billion this year, up from about $1 billion in 1990. Organic sales have increased about 20 percent a year since 1997, compared with the 2 percent to 4 percent growth rate of total U.S. food sales.

"Organic foods started with the hippies of the '60s. Now it is more broad-based. You can find the products in almost any conventional supermarket," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the organic trade group. For most consumers, buying organic foods < those produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and hormones < is all about health, said Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers Inc. in Gainesville. In earlier decades, people bought organic food out of concerns about the environmental impact of conventional farming, Mesh said.

"They're asking, 'What's in it for me?' as opposed to 'What's in it for the earth?' " Mesh said. "People are concerned about their health and their family's health, and they're shopping their values."

Chains join bandwagon U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for organic food, implemented in October 2002, helped level the playing field for consumers, forcing companies to abide by a uniform set of regulations in order to put the "organic" label on their products, Haumann said.

As trendy as organics are, the products account for only 2 percent of U.S. food sales. That's hardly a critical mass, but still substantial in a country of 300 million, said Bob Messenger, publisher of The Morning Cup, a daily online newsletter focused on the food industry.

"You would not see the big supermarkets making these changes in their stores if it weren't of genuine interest to consumers," Messenger said.

Florida's dominant grocery chain, Publix Super Markets of Lakeland, introduced organic foods several years ago and keeps adding products to its GreenWise line of dairy, produce and packaged foods. Some organic products, such as certain juices and soups, are also found on shelves next to their conventional counterparts. A year ago Publix began offering its own GreenWise brand of canned vegetables such as corn and black beans, at 99 cents a can, said spokeswoman Anne Hendricks.

"We listened to our customers," Hendricks said. "When they tell us they want certain things, we respond."

Next year, Publix will debut its first stand-alone GreenWise stores. The first two stores are slated to be in Palm Beach County: One in Boca Raton, where an existing Publix at the Village Square shopping center off St. Andrews Boulevard will be converted, and the other is planned for Legacy Place off PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens.

When Publix gets to PGA Boulevard, it will find a familiar competitor. Whole Foods is opening its second area market there later this year in the new Downtown at the Gardens retail development.

The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, Ark., also has seen the appeal of organic food. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart's chief executive officer, Lee Scott, said the discounter needs to push premium perishables such as organic food to attract higher-spending shoppers.

Wal-Mart already carries organics, said spokeswoman Karen Burk. Selections at various Wal-Mart Supercenters may include organic dairy products, dry groceries, organic packaged salad and fresh produce, she said.

"It's all about providing our customers what they're wanting, and we're finding that many of them are looking for an organic alternative," Burk said.

Taste, variety trump price Everyone shopping at Whole Foods isn't there for health reasons, or even to buy organic. The store carries products that are natural, but not organic, such as conventional produce, orange juice, pudding and other items.

Take Boca Raton software salesman Richard Merrill, whose opinion of organic foods is blunt: "It's a hoax."

Nonetheless, Merrill stops in a Whole Foods in-store cafe about four times a week, lunching on a bounty of organic and natural foods at the hot buffet, and the salad bar at $6.99 a pound.

"I come here because it's convenient, it's quick and you don't have to wait. I like the variety. I've never had any of this before," Merrill said, taking bites of spinach lasagna and a couple of side dishes.

Kathleen Byrd, a student at Florida Atlantic University across Glades Road from Whole Foods, shops at the market especially for foods without wheat or dairy, but says there's a bonus to her health concerns.

"You find things you can't find anywhere else, then you find out they're really good," Byrd said during a trip to the grocery last week.

Expensive, too. Prices for organic foods at supermarkets and specialty stores can be anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent higher to as much as double the price for comparable items. Organic products generally cost more to produce, and farmers receive premium prices for them.

According to an August 2004 survey of 1,000 Americans conducted for Whole Foods, price remains the primary barrier for most people to try organic products.

Despite that, organic foods continue to grow in popularity. The same survey, conducted by the Chicago-based research firm Synovate, found that 27 percent of Americans were eating more organic products than in 2003. More than half of Americans have tried organic foods and beverages.

That sales potential is recognized by major food manufacturers, who began acquiring organic and natural foods companies in the last five or six years, said Haumann, the spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.

A partial list: Kraft Foods now owns soy-based meat alternative producer
Boca Burger Inc. Kellogg's owns Kashi Cereal, Morningstar Farms and Sunrise Organic, while Coca-Cola North America bought juice company Odwalla Inc. in
2001. General Mills owns Small Planet Foods and its Cascadian Farm organic brand.

Just last year Dean Foods Co. acquired Horizon Organic, the nation's largest producer of organic dairy products. While long-time organic industry supporters view the sector's mainstreaming as positive, encouraging more farmers to grow organically, they worry about big business' involvement.

They don't want the organic movement's environmentalist roots to be forgotten.

"We like to see the availability of organic products for more people, yet we also want fair prices paid to organic farmers," Haumann said. "The trouble with our society is that a lot of people don't factor in the true cost of food. You are not paying upfront for costs such as water and farmworkers." Consumers such as Krista Blaszyk, a Coral Springs resident and land surveyor who stopped for a salad of organic greens at Whole Foods last week, like having more choices.

"It's encouraging that stores are carrying these foods. People are gravitating toward it," Blaszyk said. "It has to do with where people are in their lives." f_organic_0626.html