Sales boom in organic food set to continue

Watchdog's warning on unverified imported organic produce unlikely to alter shoppers' attitudes to 'healthy' produce

Health-conscious shoppers are driving up sales of organic food by 40 per cent a year, and lack of evidence on whether the food is safer or more nutritious is unlikely to dent the booming industry, consumer and organic organisations said yesterday.

Health-conscious shoppers are driving up sales of organic food by 40 per cent a year, and lack of evidence on whether the food is safer or more nutritious is unlikely to dent the booming industry, consumer and organic organisations said yesterday.

People buy organic produce believing it has fewer chemicals and pesticides so is safer for them and the environment, and one-third of organic buyers think it tastes better, said Harry Hadaway of the Soil Association, which registers organic farmers.

He said evidence from Swiss and Danish scientists suggested organic fruit and vegetables were healthier than conventionally grown produce, but more research was needed.

Tim Lobstein, co-director of the Food Commission, London, said: "The absence of evidence showing it is good for you, does not mean that it isn't. It is the argument they used for BSE and is not valid."

A survey by Health Which? showed 29 per cent of people ate organic food because they thought it tasted better. But 46 per cent of the 2,000 people questioned said they thought the food contained more vitamins and minerals and 60 per cent believed it was healthier.

Peter Jenkins of the Consumers' Association said: "The Food Standards Agency has a duty to inform consumers, and their research that the food is not necessarily safer or more nutritious backs up our own findings.

"But we have found organic foods contain less pesticides and chemicals, which might be a legitimate reason for eating them despite the fact that this doesn't mean they are healthier," he said.

In the past two years, the demand for organic produce has grown at such a rate that British organic farmers cannot keep up with shoppers' wishes. Nearly 80 per cent of the organic produce in shops isimported.

This has raised issues of regulation because, although organic food labelling is well-policed in Britain, imported products present more risks.

The United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards, an arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has a permanent staff of four who oversee six organisations in the UK that issue the licences needed to display the label "organic".

The Soil Association (SA) and the Organic Farmers and Growers are the largest of these and they admit import regulation is haphazard because many farms work cooperatively, making inspection of each one difficult.

Sir John Krebs, the FSA chief, said in his damning criticism of the safety and nutritional aspects of organic produce: "Another point we should make is that the organic standards in the UK are extremely high standards but they're not necessarily the same standards applied in the rest of the world and, of course, much of our organic food is imported and I think consumers should be aware of that."

Even in Britain standards might not be everything consumers expect. SA regulations allow farmers to give chickens 20 per cent non-organic feed and still call them organic.

And "Organic" processed food can carry up to 5 per cent of non-organic agricultural ingredients.

The National Farmers' Union warned that unless additional support was offered the number of people applying to convert to organic farming in Britain would fall, after several years of steady growth, despite rising demand. The latest figures show 3 per cent of agricultural land in Britain is organic, lower than many other countries in Europe.

Research has shown that although only 2 per cent of consumers say they always try to eat organic, 29 per cent are now replacing at least some of their staple foods with organic alternatives.

All the main supermarkets offer extensive ranges of organic foods from jam to gin and vodka, as well as staples such as bread, milk, cheese, yoghurt and pasta.

Yesterday Asda announced a £1m investment in a new range of organic products and now offers more than 400 different ones. Waitrose offers the largest range with more than 1,000, and defends the higher prices by saying it needs to encourage more farmers to go organic and will not be able to do that if it forces down the price it pays them.

Tesco offers more than 700 organic products and was unrepentant about expanding its lines. "We have seen sales of organics double year on year over the last three years," said Simon Soffe of Tesco. "One of the main reasons our customers buy organic is because of concern about the environment.

"Organic produce does use less chemicals and pesticides. Buying organic is a personal choice and one which our customers should be allowedto make."

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