Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic Growth Slows in European Markets

Long regarded as leading indicators for U.S. food trends, British and other European shoppers have slowed their rush to embrace organics, according to statistics from Organic Monitor. The U.K. analysts found that while new organic standards in the United States pushed consumption to record heights, Western European markets reported single-digit growth—7.8 percent overall—for the first time in many years. Germany, the largest European market for organics, was hit by food scandals that depressed sales.

Overall, Organic Monitor found worldwide growth in organics rose 10 percent to $22.7 million. Nearly 23 million hectares, or 56.8 million acres, of farmland around the world are under organic cultivation.

British retail analyst Bernice Hurst is not convinced the reports are surveying the right retail channels. In the United Kingdom, she said, "supermarkets tend to be used by people looking for cheap food. The organic products sold in those supermarkets are not cheap; therefore those particular shoppers may not want to buy them."

"This recognition by consumers that you can get excellent quality local produce may be having an effect on the sale of imported organic food."
Many aficionados of organic food in England are buying directly from growers, either through "box schemes" much like the community supported agriculture groups in the United States, or through farmers' markets. "Not all the stallholders are certified organic, but they do have to come from a very tight geographic area and produce their own food," Hurst said. "This recognition by consumers that you can get excellent quality local produce may be having an effect on the sale of imported organic food."

Much of the organic food sold by supermarkets in England is imported, "which, in the eyes of many consumers, myself included, almost defeats the primary objective," Hurst said. Consumer interest has expanded from merely organic or natural to locally grown and fair-trade products.

Another report from England found that consumer growth in vegetarian food is being driven not by vegetarians but by meat eaters. While two-thirds of Britons ate a meat-free meal in 2003, only 7 percent were vegetarians while 58 percent were "looking for a bit of variety" in meat substitutes, pasta, pizza and ready meals. But the food safety issues that drove many shoppers away from meat in the 1990s have faded from shoppers' minds, a study by the U.K. Food and Drink Federation found.

Food and Drink Federation organic food specialist Dominic Dyer told the U.K. news site that organics growth is slower, but still sustainable. "We will probably see rates of 5 percent to 7 percent over the next few years, rather than the 20 percent to 30 percent that we have seen," he said.

Even in the face of pro-GMO pressure from corporations and the U.S. government, European consumers continue to demand foods free from genetically modified organisms. As part of a country-wide "national dialogue" on GM crops, Britain's largest supermarkets—including Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway and Wal-Mart unit Asda—told the government that they will not stock such foods because consumers do not want them.

"Supermarkets are being pragmatic in refusing to stock them," Hurst said. "Why waste shelf space and antagonize customers who have said that they simply will not buy it?"

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 22

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