ANALYSIS: Health is taboo in feeding information on organics

Even though consumers perceive organic foods as healthier, there's no conclusive proof. So producers are pushing taste, quality, and the environment, finds John N. Frank.

Even though consumers perceive organic foods as healthier, there's no conclusive proof. So producers are pushing taste, quality, and the environment, finds John N. Frank.

PR people pushing organic food have a perplexing dilemma. Study after study finds that consumers generally think of organic foods as healthier. The latest such study was released at the end of 2002 by the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group. It showed that more than 60% of consumers believe organic foods are healthier than nonorganics. This would be great news for the organic industry, except that federal organic-labeling standards that went into effect last October do not allow for health claims to be made by organic processors. So while the standards establish nationally what can be labeled as organic (ending a hodgepodge of state- and industry-used definitions), PR for organics can't make health claims - the one possible attribute that a majority of consumers identify with. The organic industry has made efforts to fund scientific research on the health benefits of organics, hopefully to gain the ammunition needed to make credible health claims. But until such data is available, organic PR will focus on messages that only allude to the health issue, and also touch on other positive features of organics. "Some things in life are so true that they don't need to be said," jokes Michael Neuwirth, corporate communications director for Acirca, a New Rochelle, NY-based company that markets the Walnut Acres line of organic products. Walnut Acres stresses the authenticity of its products, along with discussing convenience and taste. "We've identified the intersection between the trend toward healthy eating and the trend toward more convenient eating," Neuwirth says. Gauger & Santy, a San Francisco firm that has long worked with organic clients, is stressing taste and the purity of ingredients for its launch of Koyo Organic Asian Pasta. The product is made of heirloom wheat, purified water, and sea salt. "Most people who are concerned about their health realize that the heirloom grains are of a superior quality," contends Mary Garrett, director of PR with Gauger. In organic PR, "we can't say, 'This is healthier for you,' but we can call out some of the health factors," she says. Judy Rowcliffe, an Edelman SVP in San Francisco who works with organic retailer Wild Oats, has identified specific points of entry when consumers are interested in hearing about organics: when people have children, and when they have health issues of their own to deal with. "These groups want control of what they put into their - or their children's - bodies," she says. Using organics "is a little way you can control what goes on in your life." Edelman worked with Wild Oats when the new regulations came out last year, using spokesperson Nell Newman, daughter of actor Paul Newman, and head of part of his food company Newman's Own Organics. "What we're trying to support is what organic means to you, the consumer," Rowcliffe says. Tuesday Uhland, VP with Access Communications in San Francisco, notes that her firm is targeting children for client Horizon Organic, a Boulder, CO, maker of dairy products. Last year, Horizon rolled out single-serve organic pudding for children. It also has single-serve organic milk. It's doing local PR to convince school districts to offer its milk, and maintains an educational center in Maryland where school groups can learn about organic farming. "A lot of parents buy organics for their kids, not for themselves," Uhland says. Last year, Access sent out 300 media kits about the new labeling regulations on behalf of Horizon and contacted 500 reporters, but "we didn't make any headway until we found a reporter with kids who was interested," Uhland recalls. The environmental message Another PR approach for organics has been to discuss the benefits for the environment of how organics are grown. "Whether or not you can make a health claim, you can certainly present facts about organic farming," says Mara Engel, cofounder of Organicworks, a New York City agency. Some think this type of message should be enough to get consumers to buy organic. "It's a much more ecologically friendly system. You're getting a system that's working with nature instead of destroying it," says Brian Leahy, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies organic producers in that state. Leahy thinks organic producers should tell consumers that buying organic puts them in harmony with the environment, while farming with chemicals doesn't. Messages that talk about the lack of pesticides, herbicides, or growth hormones in organic products have resonated with some consumers. Uhland also finds food retailers are interested in the environmental message organics bring. Organic retailers want to do business with producers that are involved in philanthropy, she suggests. But PR people trying to broaden organic foods' appeal say environmental messages aren't enough to reach the mass market of consumers. "How do we get people living outside Boulder, CO, and not wearing Birkenstocks, to buy organic?" asks Engel. She's trying to do it by using a tried-and-true food PR technique - tastings. Engel, working with supermarket chain Whole Foods and other partners, has organized an event called the Organic Odyssey. The first was held last year in New York for the media to taste organic products. A second is scheduled for January 28-29 in California, and will be open to the public. Thirty companies plan to attend, allowing consumers to sample their foods. White Wave, which makes Silk brand soymilk, has worked with Minneapolis-based agency Carmichael Lynch Spong to identify messages that appeal to five different user audiences for its products. A lactose-free message is given to people who can't drink regular milk, while the benefits of soy are pushed to what the agency calls the "sold on soy" segment. Those searching for organic items are given the environmental messages, as are consumers seeking out products that help the environment. Lastly, messages about cholesterol and soy's role in fighting heart disease are directed at people concerned about health, explains Julie Johnson, head of the food and beverage group at Carmichael Lynch. "White Wave had managed to incorporate multiple messages on its Silk packaging, which is its biggest billboard," Johnson says. Educating several audiences However, organic PR focuses on more than consumers, says Michael Straus, president of Straus Communications. "We have to educate the whole pipeline, from the media to the consumer," he explains. Organic products are mainstays at chains such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods, but increasingly mainline supermarkets also carry organics. Acirca has invested in research on shopping habits so it can convince retailers to display organic items next to nonorganic products of the same type. Many mainstream supermarkets relegate organics to what the industry calls the "organic ghetto" - a section of the store where all organic products are displayed together. But "shoppers don't want to seek out organics, they prefer them integrated," Neuwirth says. Beth Corwin, management supervisor at Patrice Tanaka, New York, recalls that when her agency helped Acirca launch a new line of organic soups in 2000, retailers were a major PR target. Key message points included the growing consumer interest in organics and the value such products, which sell at higher prices, bring to retailers. "We're talking to retailers about how they can increase all their organic sales," she says. Retailers, consumers, and the food press are all targets for organic messages, but those messages won't mention health benefits until more research is available. In the meantime, continue to expect the organic world to talk about purity, taste, and the environment.

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