Organic Foods: Mr Wholefood heads for the big time
A man with his finger on the pulse of macrobiotics, Craig Sams is an true organic pioneer, as David Nicholson-Lord discovered
Once, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, he bought a radioactivity testing machine to analyse the becquerel levels of imported hazelnuts. Officials assured him the nuts weren't radioactive. The machine said otherwise.
Mr Sams, American-born and educated but a British resident since the Sixties, has often been proved right since. In 1967, when he started Yin Yang, macrobiotics were labelled, by one Harvard authority, the "hippie death diet", and the FBI raided and closed down the macrobiotic book shop in New York for preaching the message that cancer might be prevented by a healthy diet. We now know this to be true - indeed a leading Harvard nutritionist was recently advocating a largely macrobiotic diet. But if wholefood has come a long way in the last three decades, so has Mr Sams.
Yin Yang closed not long after it opened, but in 1967 Mr Sams also founded Whole Earth Foods, which in the UK helped pioneer the introduction of a mass audience to healthy eating. Operating from London's Portobello Road, Whole Earth and its related companies makes a range of products from breakfast cereals to canned foods. It is probably best known for its peanut butters (hence his concern for radioactive nuts) and fruit spreads - one of which was prosecuted in the Seventies because it contained no sugar. More recently, in 1991, Mr Sams, with his wife, Jo Fairley, co-founded Green and Black's Organic Chocolate, makers of Maya Gold, the first "fair-trade" chocolate in the UK. But his most radical move was probably in the Eighties.
Back in the Sixties, he explains, macrobiotics - the brown rice and lentils of folk memory - fuelled the wholefood movement. In the Seventies Whole Earth sold mainly grains and pulses, and preached the message that all food should be home-made. The move into food processing was thus a major departure - but necessary, if eating habits were to be influenced. And Mr Sams believes those eating habits are now in the process of "irreversible" change.
"We had a letter last week from a family saying they had started just eating organic, they had known about it for years and they didn't know why it had taken so long for the penny to drop. That's happening in household after household across the country. It isn't just a passing fad - it's a one-way valve. It's part of a sea change in beliefs, towards more holistic and self-dependent attitudes.
"People are taking control of things like their health. The urban masses are getting back to their roots, they're connecting back to what they're eating. And that's what the big guys have recognised now."
By big guys, Mr Sams means both the major supermarket chains, many of which are now launching own-label organic brands, and multinational food manufacturers such as Unilever, Heinz and Mars, which are researching and developing organic products.
Hence, in part, his decision to move up a league. Success, and rapid growth, has brought problems of management and financing. This year Mr Sams and his family sold out their controlling interest in Whole Earth, Green and Blacks and Gusto to the management team responsible for the success of the New Covent Garden Soup Company.
"Five or even three years ago a business in this environment had to be driven by a personal vision, but we now have a shared vision here. You can't go around saying we want the world to go organic and on the other hand say not yet, because I've got a business that might get squeezed out. It's one of those things that crusading comes up against. It's part of going mainstream."
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