Organic Food Movement Reaches Critical Mass

Like some counter-culture version of the Manhattan Project, the organic movement progressed for decades pretty much unnoticed.

By John K. Ashby, Contributing Editor

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Some in the conventional food industry even laughed at organic. That is, until about 15 years ago when it appeared to explode onto the scene seemingly from nowhere.

The organic industry has gone nuclear, reaching a critical mass that took decades to produce and is now both enjoying, and suffering from, the results of its explosive growth.

According to the Nutrition Business Journal, organic food sales could continue growing by double digits - 14 percent or so, as it has been averaging - leading the industry to sales nearing $25 billion within a few years. Produce and dairy are still the largest segments of the total organics market. But inside this growth rate are the potential stars of the future - bakery, meats and poultry. If organic grains and feed can keep up with the pace, these segments could grow at a rate as high as 40 percent annually for the foreseeable future.

With such gung-ho growth, the (previously) strictly conventional food industry has moved in to play a major role on both the consumer products and food ingredients side. A few examples of big processors taking up the torch of organic include General Mills, Kraft Foods, Dean Foods, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra and Kerry Ingredients.


With organic labeling laws still being worked out, not to mention subject to intense controversy, some companies are taking the reins and establishing clear criteria for their products.

General Mills describes organic foods as "food grown by farmers who use farming methods that strive for a balance with nature. Organic farmers focus on soil improvement and rely on biological systems to produce high quality food and reduce environmental impact." Their "organic" food label identifies food grown with practices that:

• DON'T use synthetic pesticides, herbicides and soil fumigants
• DON'T use genetic engineering
• DON'T use sewage sludge as fertilizer

• DO improve the quality and fertility of the soil
• DO protect water quality
• DO reduce soil erosion
• DO rely on natural biological systems for pest and weed control
• DO reduce the impact of agriculture on our environment
• DO produce high quality, great tasting food.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods Markets, the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods with more than 155 stores, keeps racking up the sales. Suffice it to say the conventional foods industry is not laughing anymore.

Whole Foods Stores is in many ways the most public face of organic and natural foods merchandising. "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet" is their motto. It resonates with their consumer base, and is actively backed up in ways beyond what's on the shelf.

General Mills made the news last year with their commitment to whole grains in their cereals - a clear response to the health and wellness movement of consumer nutrition. Lesser known, however, is that General Mills is also a major player in the Natural/organic arena with their Small Planet Foods division. Consumers are moving in these directions and General Mills recognizes the market, current size and direction of growth.

The organic argument

By eating organic produce, you limit your exposure to synthetic insecticides, fungicides and herbicides because these chemicals are not applied to organic crops. By eating organic animal products, you limit your intake of growth hormones and antibiotics, because organic meat and dairy farmers are prohibited from using hormones and antibiotics in organic livestock and dairy production. You also limit your intake of genetically modified foods because organic farmers cannot raise genetically modified crops or livestock or use production aids that are genetically modified.

Organic farming helps provide a safer, healthier environment by: 1) not polluting our groundwater, rivers, lakes, and oceans with pesticides and chemical fertilizers; 2) reducing soil erosion; 3) improving soil quality; 4) increasing the diversity of wildlife on and near farms; and 5) providing safer working conditions for farm laborers (no exposure to pesticides)."

Until recently, "organic" was synonymous with "fringe." The idea that multinational, multibillion-dollar food corporations would feel inclined to pursue the higher costs and increased complications of creating organic products was unlikely, to say the least. But it's a different world, a different consumer today, and the big guys are responding to the strong consumer interest in organic.

Take Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill. The company continues to fulfill an important strategic role - that of remaining strong in its traditional markets within its traditional business model. At the same time, Kraft's natural, vegetarian and organic entries, Back to Nature and Boca Burger, play a key role in its strategy for the future. Those product lines move the company toward what it terms its "new business system" while at the same time addressing the "new consumer behavior."

Boca is Kraft's line of vegetarian meat analogs, which includes a sub-line of organic vegetarian and Vegan offerings. The full line of "made with organic soy" Boca Burgers include the following options: All American Classic Burger, Vegan, Garden Vegetable, Roasted Onion, Roasted Garlic and Cheeseburger.

"The consumer is at the core of all our new product innovations at Kraft," explains Brian Driscoll, Kraft's senior vice president of North American commercial sales. "Our goal is to delight consumers with all of our brands by introducing products that fit their lives today and staying one step ahead of their needs for tomorrow."

From Tang to organic Shells & Cheese Dinner, Kraft is making a concerted effort to be significantly present in every substantial facet of the food industry.

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