Organic food price report silenced

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The Soil Association, the body responsible for promoting organic food in the UK, has suppressed a report accusing Britain's leading supermarkets of overcharging for organic goods.

The study advises consumers to buy organic produce at farm shops, farmers' markets or through an organic "box scheme".

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, admitted yesterday that he ordered the report to be withdrawn from the organisation's magazine. He said it sent out the wrong message by effectively encouraging supermarkets to lower their prices, which would squeeze organic producers' profits and threatening them with bankruptcy.

But Dr Anna Ross, senior economist with the University of the West of England and author of the study, accused the Soil Association of being "too busy trying not to upset the supermarkets".

In her study, Dr Ross claims supermarkets are the "most expensive of all organic food retailers" with "the smallest range of fresh produce".

According to her research, a basket of vegetables bought in a sample of farm shops was 63 per cent more expensive in Tesco; 59 per cent more expensive in Sainsbury's; and 38 per cent more expensive in Waitrose. Organic meat, she said, was on average 64 per cent higher in supermarkets than in local farmers' markets.

Some of the findings were due to be published in the coming issue of the Soil Association's quarterly magazine, Living Earth.

But its message would have contradicted the main message of the association's annual conference, due to take place in Harrogate this week, which will call for a sea-change in society's attitude to food pricing. Mr Holden, wants to get across the message that "as a society we pay too little for our food".

Dr Ross's report, Mr Holden suggested, could have the effect of driving organic producers "into bankruptcy". Mr Holden said: "Our primary responsibility is to make the public aware of the consequences of a mantra of cheap food. If consumers want the organic movement to survive they must understand it is worth paying more for quality."

Organic food is big business for supermarkets. Tesco, says Dr Ross's report, has announced plans to increase sales of organic food to £1bn in five years, while Asda has said it wants to get organic food prices down to the levels of non-organic. Mr Holden said the report would only encourage the supermarkets to try to trim costs even further.

Last year, organic retail sales grew 33 per cent to £802m. Supermarkets have 80 per cent of the market, the study claimed.

* The report Organic Food Prices 2002 is available for £55 direct from Dr Ross (tel: 01666 824585)