FOCUS CONSUMER PR: Organic growth - Food safety scares have triggered huge demand for organic produce. And the top food retailers are having to ensure that they stay in tune with what customers want Mary Cowlett reports.

For the UK’s top supermarket chains, the last few years have seen organic food move from fad to fashion to big business.

For the UK’s top supermarket chains, the last few years have seen

organic food move from fad to fashion to big business.

Only five years ago, Somerfield Stores introduced a range of fresh

organic produce that was so unpopular that Somerfield was forced to

withdraw it from the shelves. Now discerning consumers can buy organic

everything, from ready meals to nappies.

According to a recent survey by the Consumers’ Association, 29 per cent

of UK shoppers now replace some of their staple food with organic


Of those who choose organic, almost two-thirds give health as their


The report, in Health Which? magazine, reveals that this decision is

largely based upon avoiding pesticides and a belief that organic

products taste better and contain more nutrients than non-organic.

In the wake of controversy over BSE and GM derivatives, many consumers

also view the organic option as a guarantee that food is GM-free and

meat products are clean of animal protein feeds. But, as with all food

issues there are a range of opinions on organics and negative reports on

organic food are becoming increasingly widespread in the media.

The first question mark over organic food concerned price, with

accusations that consumers are being exploited. But journalists are now

also starting to question the health benefits, safety and environmental

costs of organics.

Food producers have been accused of encouraging consumers to believe

that organic automatically equals healthy. In a recent BBC-2 programme

Counterblast: Organic Food - The Modern Myth, scientists voiced concerns

about organic farming such as the potential for e-coli poisoning from

use of manure.

This coverage appears to have had little impact on the consumer, but

there are predictions that an organic food backlash is on the way, and

soon. ’We are looking at the market very closely and advising all our

clients to exercise some caution and ensure that if they choose to go

down the organic route, they are whiter than white,’ says Jo Rimmer,

director of food and drink specialist agency Nexus Choat PR.

She believes there will be an increasing focus on organisations claiming

that they are truly embracing organic principles, rather than jumping on

a commercial bandwagon.

Whole Earth, which uses Phipps PR, produces organic products ranging

from baked beans to Green and Black’s branded luxury chocolates.

’We have been in the organics market for more than 30 years, initially

selling to the real hard core enthusiasts,’ says Whole Earth chief

executive William Kendall. ’Now we are making other products that are

more acceptable to a new breed of consumers, who have imported all sorts

of other values into the term organic,’ he adds. This includes those

whose primary focus is protecting the environment or the health of their


But while the surge in popularity of organic foods in the UK has been

enormous, it is not a purely British obsession. ’Without a doubt the

growth of interest in this country is remarkable, probably not matched

elsewhere in Europe.

’However, we are still lagging behind other countries such as Austria in

terms of land given over to organic farming methods,’says Emma Parkin,

press officer for the Soil Association (SA), which certifies the

majority of organic products in the UK.

A charitable organisation, the SA has been researching and promoting

organic farming as the key to sustainable agriculture since 1946. Its

symbol is widely recognised as the consumer’s guarantee of organic

quality and the body works to inform and advise through various


Two years ago, the SA estabished a multiple retailers working group, to

educate the supermarkets on organic standards. In addition, the charity

encourages journalists and consumers to undertake farm walks. ’This

enables our producers to demonstrate that they are not stuck in the

middle ages, but use modern techniques such as advanced seeds,

biological controls and, to many people’s amazement, tractors,’ says


However, a large part of the SA’s work is also lobbying policy


With Government money to help farmers convert to organic spent within

six months and no new funding due until 2001, this has put the retail

problems of supply and demand under the spotlight. In turn, the

supermarkets have to face the ongoing challenge of sourcing around 70

per cent of their organic products abroad.

As a retailer that traditionally sells British, Marks and Spencer says

that it has had no difficulty in explaining this reliance on imports to

customers. M&S relaunched its organics range in May 1998, and regularly

sends out press packs, samples and suggested menus to food, science and

environmental writers.

In-store, M&S promotes its organics range with posters and cards, and

has also produced a customer brochure which explains some of the more

complicated aspects of organic production, and also highlights M&S

Select Farms and its traceability scheme, which allows fresh and

prepared meat to be traced back to a specific farm and animal.

’We have been talking to our top 20 UK suppliers, saying that we’re in

organics for the long term, so it’s worth them considering converting,’

says food press manager Sue Sadler, who adds that over the coming

months, M&S plans to introduce initiatives to help UK farmers who are

thinking about going organic.

Somerfield is already in talks with its suppliers about introducing a

range of ’transitional’ products sourced from producers who are in the

transition period - usually two years - between non-organic and organic

status. ’Our intention is to offer support and encouragement for

producers taking the plunge to convert and offer our customers a third

choice and price point,’ says Somerfield spokesman Pete Williams.

Fresh organic produce at Somerfield represents between five and ten per

cent of its sales and Somerfield is aiming to achieve ten per cent of

overall organic market share by 2001. The supermarket is also looking to

integrate its organic policy into its nationwide strategy on regional

foods. Since August 1999, Somerfield has given store managers the

autonomy to source products from small local food producers, following

quality assurance checks. This means in-store promotions for local

produce, and customers have the chance to support their local


Safeway, under the guidance of new CEO Carlos Criado-Perez, also wants

to allow more flexibility for store managers to create their own special

offers and match products to the profile of customers. Its flagship

store in Camden, London has significant in-store promotions of Safeway’s

200-plus organic foodstuffs. Safeway is also reviewing its whole organic

strategy and in the next few weeks, organic fruit and vegetables will be

sold to consumers in the French style, with huge pyramids of

package-free produce.

But the biggest consumer barrier for organic food remains price.

According to the Health Which? survey, 45 per cent of people choosing

not to eat organic food stated cost as a reason. In line with this

finding, Iceland has publicised its intention to sell organics at a

favourable price. And on 28 February, Asda launched its own organics

range, which aims to undercut the competition by five to ten per


However, the SA argues that supermarket price wars will place enormous

commercial pressures on organic farmers, and may open the door to future

food safety problems.

Parkin also states that while organics may appear expensive, this is

misleading as all production costs are covered at the point of


’With mainstream production there are hidden costs that are met

indirectly by taxes and water bills, such as the pounds 120 million

spent on cleaning pesticides out of the water system each year,’ she


A consumer backlash against organics because of safety fears has yet to

happen. But in the meantime, supermarket PR departments are working

overtime to meet consumer demand for a perceived healthier



Positive messages:

- Organic food is grown from healthy crops and comes from livestock that

have not been treated with artifical chemical fertilisers or


- Supermarkets claim that they take a similar or lower profit margin on

organic food than on mainstream.

- There is no credible evidence to support the risk of food poisoning,

as organic farming methods require natural fertilizers to be


- Organic food tastes better and contains more nutrients than mainstream


- Organic food is highly unlikely to contain trace genetically modified

material or be contaminated with BSE.

- Organic farming builds a sustainable agriculture and has a beneficial

effect on the environment and conservation, as it goes towards providing

biodiversity and wide ranges of habitat.

Negative messages:

- Organic food is prohibitively expensive

- Organic food is linked to an increased risk of food poisoning from

bugs like E-coli that get into the food chain via manure.

- Mainstream farming methods in the UK are rigorously policed, so

pesticide residues on fresh produce are negligeable.

- Food manufacturers and supermarkets are jumping on a marketing


Consumers are being misled into believing that organic versions of

everyday foods such as dairy produce, and ready meals are healthier than

conventional, when they may contain similar or increased levels of

sugar, salt and fat.

- Seventy per cent of UK organic food is imported, which means that the

environmental costs of transportation are above those of mainstream



In January this year, Waitrose, the food shops of the John Lewis

Partnership, won the You magazine Organic Supermarket of the Year Award,

for the second year running. Voted for by readers of the Mail on Sunday,

the award is made in recognition of the contribution made by Waitrose to

organic retailing in the UK.

Although Waitrose only has 121 outlets, spanning the Midlands, Wales,

East Anglia and the south of England, analysis of the results by NOP

showed that voters liked its selection of organic products, quality,

manner of display, supporting information and Waitrose’s helpful and

knowledgeable staff.

According to Waitrose organics spokesperson Louise Cairns, this is at

the heart of how the organisation likes to promote its organic


’Because people have been principally driven to buy organic by food

scares, customers want to find out about how their food is being

produced,’ she says.

Waitrose’s organic communications works on many levels. Dealings with

customers, suppliers, industry experts, the Soil Association and

Government all feed back to one another. Direct messages to customers

involve a sustained programme, including branch tasting sessions and

talks by senior buyers and agronomists. The latest organic product news

is published in Waitrose Food Illustrated, a monthly title sent free to

John Lewis and Waitrose account card holders. It contains in-depth

features on organic suppliers, experts and issues facing the sector.

Waitrose carries around 650 organic product lines and has made a

commitment to increase this to 1,000 during this year. ’But we’re not

playing a numbers game with how many products we stock,’ says Cairns.

’There has to be quality and sustainability because our customers are

very food and organic literate.’

As a result, in-house experts are fundamental to the Waitrose

communications strategy, with comment provided from those with both

corporate and technical knowledge. Waitrose agronomist Alan Wilson, is

often involved with the messages to the key consumer and trade press, a

reflection of his work with the UK Register of Organic Food


Waitrose has always prided itself on its pioneering stance, being one of

the first supermarkets to sell organics back in 1983. This February, it

became the first supermarket to offer an organics-dedicated on-line

delivery service, Waitrose Organics Direct.

Initially this is offering shoppers a choice of four box options but it

also provides a new platform for communicating with customers.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in