Grocers jumping on the organic bandwagon

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Julie Sasinka’s family started Mountain Mama Natural Foods in Colorado Springs more than 26 years ago.

Grocery stores and specialty shops are rushing to meet a growing market trend: the demand for organics.
Organic food is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food produced by farmers who “emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering or ionizing radiation.”
The organic market has increased more than 20 percent during the past six years, and the organic food and products industry is expected to reach $83 billion in sales this year, according to the Natural Marketing Institute.
Julie Sasinka’s family started health food store Mountain Mama Natural Foods more than 26 years ago, when organic food was embraced by a minority of consumers.
“We have seen some increase in the past few years,” she said. “Most of our customers have been interested in organic food for a long time. Only recently has the general public become more interested.”
Major grocery store chains are trying to carve a niche in the market once reserved for local stores like Mountain Mama or specialty chains, such as Wild Oats or Whole Foods.
“We’ve offered organics for 10 years,” Safeway spokesman Jeff Stroh said. “And during that time we’ve seen a steady increase in that market, but the last two or three years, there’s been a real explosion in our customers’ desire for natural and organic foods.”
That retail explosion led to a major decision: Safeway started carrying its own brand of organics – O-Organics.
“It’s not a matter of competing with other stores,” Stroh said. “But we’re trying to stay with the current trends and ahead of customer needs. We don’t see it as trying to compete. We’ve seen this demand, particularly at our lifestyle stores. Until recently, we sold between 80 and 100 organic items. We even sell our own organic milk, but the organics line we just launched is our biggest entry into the market.”
Stroh said there is a nationwide trend toward natural food selections. The O-Organics product line is integrated throughout the store, not contained in a single small section – evidence that organically grown food is becoming more mainstream. But people can be confused by the labels, Sasinka said.
“Many people don’t understand that to be certified organic, no pesticides can be used in the soil for a minimum of seven years,” she said. “That way, you’re sure it’s been eliminated. There are some complications – body care products, for example. The law says it has to at least be 75 percent organic; food items with more than one ingredient must be 95 percent organic. They’re looking at changing the law and requiring that the ingredients be 99 percent organic.”
Sasinka points curious consumers to the Internet, where studies are available about the importance of eating healthy, natural food.
In a survey by The Food Alliance, a nonprofit group funded by the Kellogg Foundation, 52 percent of the people surveyed expressed an interest in food products labeled for their environmental attributes. Of those who were concerned about the environment, most listed water conservation as the environmental issue of greatest concern.
Stores can take advantage of these consumers by marketing products to specific groups: those who always buy organic, environmentally friendly products and those who only occasionally buy them.
Sasinka said most people prefer organically grown produce, once they’ve made a comparison.
“It just tastes better,” she said. “There’s no comparison, really. And once you read about what ingesting all those pesticides will do to your body, there really are health benefits.”
Mountain Mama carries a complete line of organic products – not just produce and meat, but also personal hygiene products and environmentally friendly items. For consumers new to trying “green” products, Sasinka recommends starting with produce and checking labels for other items.
“Everything we sell is organic,” she said. “In the winter, we have produce shipped in from California and Mexico. In the summer, we buy as much locally from Colorado as we can.”
Amy.Gillentine@csbj.com