FOOD & DRINK / The health and flavour question: Organic food may be safer and ethically preferable. But does it taste better? Michael Bateman finds supermarkets and producers disagree

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THERE WERE no men in beards or sandals at the first Organic Food and Wine Fair. No food reformers pestered us with pamphlets on pesticides, no animal rights activists ambushed us. There was no one in the All Muck and Magic television team's organic uniform: green wellies, mud-stained jeans and patterned pullovers.

The organic movement has left its cranky image behind. Many of the people strolling about the fair wore city suits. Discreet lapel badges declared them to be members of the Soil Association. These are the gentleman farmers who set the standards of organic farming, how crops, produce and animals must be managed without using chemical sprays, artificial fertilisers or antibiotics.

The setting was the crisply modern Henry Doubleday Research Association's HQ at Ryton, near Coventry, home of the National Organic Education Centre. This is a 10-acre site with dozens of well-manured model gardens (including the one used for All Muck and Magic), well watered with funds from the EC, the Overseas Development Agency and Comic Relief.

It may or may not be safer to eat fruit and vegetables grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. And some people (but apparently not many) would feel more comfortable about eating animals which had been better cared for. But does organic food actually taste any better?

It is worth trying to get an answer to this question quickly. An EC regulation which was supposed to have come into effect last Thursday, although it has now been deferred for six months, will prevent any such claims. To qualify for the EC standards label you will not be able to claim 'superior organoleptic, nutritional or salubrious qualities'. In fact Safeway, which introduced organic produce into its shops more than 10 years ago (and, to show its commitment, sponsored the fair) doesn't think organic food does taste better: it has done innumerable comparative tastings and found no discernible difference in flavour between organic and non-organic fruit, veg or even meat.

Its big rival, Sainsbury's, which sells organic produce in about half its 330 stores, makes no claims either. Nor does Tesco (in spite of charging a premium, its organic produce now represents 1 per cent of sales). Waitrose, also committed to selling organics, says it wouldn't make any claims for better taste.

Marks & Spencer put organic foods on the shelves for 18 months and then withdrew them. 'We gave it our best, and it didn't happen,' a spokesman said. 'At its best, organic produce tasted as good as our regular lines. Quality was inconsistent. In any case our customers already expect controls on pesticides from us.'

But demand for organic food continues to increase. Why should this be? Safeway has identified several types of organic customers: the Greens, those who want to do their bit for the countryside and environment; the Food Phobics who have been there from the start, worried sick about what chemical pesticides are doing to them and their children; next come the Humanists, who find factory farming repugnant. And now, there's an increasing body of Hedonists, determined to give themselves a treat, believing that a premium product must be better and assuming it will taste better.

The conviction is growing that, for whatever reason, organic produce, especially organic meat and poultry, does taste better. This is certainly the view of customers at the first organic market in Britain, which opened at London's Spitalfields two months ago, following the example of Paris which has three. 'It has exploded the myth that organic food is dirty, irregular in size and vastly expensive,' Chris Kepple, a Spitalfields spokesman, says. 'Organic vegetables do taste better because they are not forced or hybridised.'

Unsurprisingly, this view was generally endorsed by producers manning stalls at the fair. Organic food did taste better, they argued, but not necessarily because it was grown to a strict organic code of no chemicals. This is a summary of their opinions.

FRUIT AND VEGETABLES: Lynda Brown, broadcaster and author of Cook's Garden (Century pounds 15.99), says organic fruit and vegetables taste better because organic producers tend to respect season and climate. 'For instance, the bestflavoured tomatoes grow outdoors and have a short season in August, but if they are force-fed under glass they won't taste of anything. The variety is important, and so is having green fingers, which you are more likely to find among small growers.'

MEAT AND POULTRY: Helen Brooking, who runs the 1,350-acre Eastbrook Farm near Shrivenham in Wiltshire, says: 'Organic food should taste better because most organic farmers use older breeds of plants and animals. Newer breeds are designed for high yields, and very little notice has been taken of flavour - Charolais and crossbreeds are fed on cereals and put on 10 to 12lbs a day, to be killed at 12 to 14 months. An organic beast, say an Angus or Hereford, is mostly fed on grass, and goes on growing slowly for two years or more before it is killed.

'It's the same with pigs. Most are sold for the supermarkets after being force-fed for 15 to 16 weeks. Organic pigs - we have Saddlebacks, Tamworth and Berkshire, the old breeds - are bred outdoors, and killed at 20 weeks, bacon pigs at 28 weeks. They get exercise, so the flesh has a firmer texture and is darker. The same thing goes for poultry.'

CHEESE AND MILK: Dougal Campbell makes a fine cheddar called Tyn Grug, in Dyfed, with milk from four organic farms. 'There's all the difference in the world between the taste of milk from cows grazing on Italian rye grass supplemented with fish feed, and cows feeding on organic leys, planted with mixed grasses and herbs, with cereal supplements. Our grazing includes deep-rooting herbs like yarrow, plantain, burnet and chicory which bring up the minerals that ensure the beasts' health. Healthy cows give quality milk, and you need that for quality cheese.'

ICE-CREAM: Peter Redstone is a dairy farmer who turned organic in the 1980s and now sells Rocombe Farm fresh ice-cream made in small batches with organic produce (he has created an astonishing range of different flavours, numbering 1,442 in all). 'Organic food tastes better to me. The organic farmer uses heartier breeds and plants which are more disease-resistant, crops with strong root-systems which work to live. Modern strains are fed on soluble nutrients, and so the soil organisms are depressed.'

YOGHURTS: Michelle Berrydale-Johnson makes non-dairy yoghurts, with organic soya-bean milk. 'Organic doesn't have to have the better taste. If you grow a lousy variety organically it will still be lousy. One advantage of organic vegetables is usually that it's easier to get them fresh out of the ground. But I'm committed to organic produce because I don't know what pesticides are going to do to me.'

CHOCOLATE AND JAMS: Craig Sams, guru of the wholefood business who founded Harmony Foods in 1970, sells sugarless jams and has just introduced Green and Black's organic dark chocolate. 'Organic products are better because most food processors start by putting in a lot of water, and then they have to put flavour back in by adding flavour enhancers. As organic producers we have to comply with a stricter code of processing.'

GRAIN: Michael Marriage runs Doves Farm, in Hungerford, Berkshire, which mills 50 different flours, some of them organic. 'I'm not sure organic foods are better-tasting because they are organic. It's because a lot of organic farmers use older varieties which impart a different taste. They probably get a better diet from the ground than crops being fed a nutrient solution. Modern varieties of grain have thin-celled walls. They grow weakly, and fungus can get in. They get sick. They are not fed a proper diet and are inherently vulnerable. How long would you last on a diet of glucose and water?'

BREAD: Andrew Whitley runs the Village Bakery in Penrith producing organic loaves in his wood-fired oven, as well as an award-winning organic restaurant. He puts the idealistic view: 'Producing organic food is the outward, visible sign of an inner spiritual purpose. There's no point in selling organic food if it's rubbish. It's a commitment to give people the best food they could

possibly have, in wholeness, quality and taste.'-

(Photograph omitted)