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
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
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
ORGANICS: FOR AND AGAINST
- 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.
- 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
WAITROSE PRIDES ITSELF ON PIONEERING APPROACH
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
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.