THE DISCOVERY of new lines of organic food used to have novelty value. Marmalade one week, milk another . . . what next, we wondered. Then the effect wore off. 'Organic? So what?' It seemed that there was no foodstuff that could not be paralleled by organic alternatives. The market divided into people who seek out organic food whenever possible and those for whom it remained an irrelevant fringe concern.

But a new organic product - Baby Organix - looks capable of shaking the truce between the believers and the non-believers and reactivating the debate over the benefits or otherwise of organic food for everyone, not just babies. Baby Organix is on sale in Safeway, Wm Low and Waitrose. Other multiples look set to follow. So what is all the fuss about?

There have been organic baby foods before, but at more than twice the conventional price and not perceptibly more palatable. Their existence posed no threat to the water-and-starch hegemony of mainstream British baby food.

The first thing that marks Baby Organix out is taste. Whether it is Summer Carrot Puree, Garden Vegetables with Herbs, or Blueberry with Muesli, the flavours have caused a stir wherever they have been sampled - and not just among babies. Distinguished cooks talk of using them as sauces; hard-to-please food lovers are said to be pouring them on to fromage blanc.

The next factor is price. At 69p for a 190g jar, you pay only 10p more than the best quality conventional baby food - a price that many parents will gladly pay to give their children something better. Then there is the packaging and promotion, which signal, loud and clear, that this is intended for the mass market, not just a committed minority.

Baby Organix, based in Poole, Dorset, is the brainchild of Elizabeth Vann and Jane Dick. Scriptwriters would love to find that they were exasperated mothers, sickened at the poor quality of standard British baby food; but neither has children, and Baby Organix is as much the child of opportunity as commitment. Ms Vann, once a nutrition consultant to a range of food manufacturers, and her co-founder, formerly employed selling pesticides and other chemical derivatives for a large petrochemical company, are perfect examples of gamekeepers turned poachers.

'We were both feeling disillusioned,' says Ms Vann. 'When you work in the industry you become very aware how much food production is about cheapening and adulterating ingredients.'

Moving on to work in a marketing consultancy, she researched the UK potential for an expansion of the French La Vie Claire health-food chain, then owned by politician-businessman Bernard Tapie. As his financial affairs became increasingly the subject of international concern, the deal went cold. But, says Ms Vann: 'We had discovered such interest in Britain, and so many persuasive arguments for the benefits, that we decided to go ahead with elements of our idea anyway.

'We have started with baby food because children's nutrition is so crucial to the whole nation's diet. It's a sort of work-up-from-the-young, not down-from-the-old approach.'

Everything that goes into a jar of Baby Organix is grown to bio-dynamic (even stricter than ordinary organic) standards in western Germany, where the method is widely used and respected. The food is made in small batches by a German firm which has specialised in baby food since 1947. All the ingredients are grown on organic farms within a 20-km (12-mile) radius. 'I know, for example, that the average time-lag between harvest and manufacture is less than 12 hours,' says Ms Vann. 'With each batch, we can pin down the exact time of picking and the date of processing.'

The company is starting to devise its own dishes based on English organic produce. New recipes are created in its trial kitchens and tried out on babies and parents on Wednesday mornings at the market in Ringwood, Hampshire. This careful controlling of ingredient source is an approach that marks Baby Organix out from other baby-food manufacturers, who may buy ingredients on the open market.

The Baby Organix foods use no fillers such as starch (widespread in all but the pure fruit baby foods), no unnecessary flavourings, and only enough water to cook the food.

It is probably this radical departure from the status quo that results in fresh, vivid flavours. Ms Vann says: 'Baby-food manufacturers say that babies like bland, pappy foods to support their own adulteration of the food. In our trials we found that adults were nearly always wrong in their predictions of which tastes babies would accept.

'The Creamed Spinach is our most popular flavour. We tried out a new compote made with dried prunes, apricots and raisins. The adults tasted it and said the babies would reject it because of the prune flavour. In fact, the babies really liked it.'

Taste apart, the launch of Baby Organix rekindles two smouldering debates about the quality of conventional versus organic food. The first is over pesticide residues and how much of a risk they pose. The latest US National Academy of Sciences report on pesticide residues and infant health expresses concern that 'infants are not considered to be a sub-population at risk and are therefore not considered when pesticide limits are set with respect to tolerances'.

The worry is that babies and children may actually be exposed to two or three times the equivalent of adult residues although their bodies are immature and less able to deal with them. The British Medical Association has said that more research needs to be carried out in this area.

But while avoidance of chemicals may be an argument of degree, the claim that organic food offers higher nutritional values is quite another - one that is sure to get some sections of the scientific community hopping. Only last week, Dr David Conning, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation (a body funded almost exclusively by the food industry), told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that he could find 'no evidence that organic farm produce is safer, nutritionally better or tastier'.

Ms Vann disagrees: 'Produce grown in organic soil, which is naturally fertile, rich in trace elements and animal life, will offer greater nutritional values.'

This position is based on a now substantial body of research from countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Japan with long pedigrees in biological farming methods. The argument is that mainstream intensive farming, through the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, robs the soil of valuable trace minerals such as potassium, copper, boron, iron and zinc - in other words, that it reduces the actual nutritional values of the food.

Leeks and carrots grown on organic soil have been found to contain 3.6 times the amount of vitamin C and 2.3 times the amount of beta carotene more than those grown on conventionally farmed soils. Although the harvest of chemically aided foods is larger, some scientists argue that much of that quantity is reflected in forced intake of excess water which again interferes with the inner structure and, thus, natural biological values of the plant.

It is a healthy debate, and a quality benchmark for British baby food (not necessarily organic) was well overdue. Baby Organix challenges the them-and-us baby-food myth: that however repellent most baby food tastes to parents, it is the way that babies like it.

Many more parents will be concluding that, by comparison with Baby Organix, standard baby food tastes pretty horrible just because it is pretty horrible, full stop. The newcomer should certainly stir up a lot more than the gloop that currently lies in Bunnykins' bowl.

(Photograph omitted)