Education still a priority for organic food market growth

In the 10 years since the United States Department of Agriculture established its National Organic Program, the sector has continued to grow, but its increased popularity underlines the need to effectively educate people on what organic really means.

In the 10 years since the United States Department of Agriculture established its National Organic Program, the sector has continued to grow, but its increased popularity underlines the need to effectively educate people on what organic really means.

The government agency, which accredits certifying agents around the country to inspect farm operations, focuses on communicating what the USDA organic label represents since "it has a lot of credibility among consumers," says Soo Kim, public affairs specialist at the USDA, who left her role in December 2012.

"As much as demand for organic is growing, there is still a need to be educated about what certification means and how rigorous it is," she explains.

Organic food sales grew 9.4% in 2011 to $29.2 billion in the US, up from $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the 2011 Organic Industry Survey by the Organic Trade Association.

In September 2012, the National Organic Program launched an Organic Literacy Initiative, which provides insights and information to consumers and current or prospective organic farmers and processors. The effort helps people answer the question, "Is organic an option for me?" adds Kim. The program includes fact sheets and an online brochure about organic standards and resources available to farmers, as well as certification information.

Stonyfield Farm and Pete & Gerry's teamed up for the Life is Good Festival to engage fans.

Social media drive
In social media, the USDA has a blog called Organic 101 for consumers and an insider email subscription service for all National Organic Program notices. The program is not on Facebook or Twitter, but organic-related stories are posted on the USDA's Facebook site or tweeted on the @USDA_AMS page using the hashtag #USDAorganic.

Another priority for the program in 2013 is building relationships with sustainable organizations and stakeholders on local levels.

Community marketing, such as samplings around the country, is also a focus for organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm because it allows the brand to have conversations with consumers, explains Carrie Kocik, director of communications at the company.

The brand's social channels and Buzz Blog allow for deeper exchanges with consumers on fun and educational topics. One issue Stonyfield addresses on social media, as well as through relationships with bloggers and reporters, is that people often think organic is "synonymous with higher price," but they don't know why, Kocik notes.

Engaging diverse sets of consumers

Aware of the continued economic impact on people in the US, Pete & Gerry's offers three tiers of eggs at different prices, allowing consumers to get a “responsibly sourced product” without having to buy the most expensive one, says Stephen Brown, MD of Cohn & Wolfe's Atlanta office.

To reach consumers who may not like Greek yogurt, Stonyfield is launching a “blends” line in January that is more like the common American yogurt, but just as creamy as Greek, adds Carrie Kocik, director of communications at the company.

She says once consumers learn organic means no pesticides, no antibiotics fed to animals, and that the animals are allowed to roam free in pasture, they know it's a better product for themselves.

"When you talk to people about the different elements of it they understand why there is that higher price, because so much extra work and care goes into it," she further explains.

To engage consumers in unique ways and reach more organic fans, Stonyfield also partners with like-minded companies.

Building relationships
In September 2012, Stonyfield and Pete & Gerry's Organic Eggs teamed up during the Life is Good Festival to serve food to attendees. When it comes to communications, Pete & Gerry's highlights transparency, allowing people to come to its farms to see sustainable efforts first-hand, says Karl Johnson, marketing director at the business.

Pete & Gerry's PR AOR, Cohn & Wolfe, reaches out to a wide range of media outlets and blogs, including consumer lifestyle, business, and trades, to get the message out about the company and its products, adds Stephen Brown, MD of the agency's Atlanta office.

"Being able to expose people to the story about how fresh food is harvested is very import-ant to us," he explains. "So as well as talking about the benefits of the products, there's an emphasis on environmental stewardship and social responsibility."

As well as launching an organic liquid egg product in 2013, the company plans to expand by bringing on 10 to 15 more small farmers and suppliers.

"Ultimately, this is the future of food for the whole world," Johnson asserts. "And it has to be sustainable." 

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