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Seemed a Good Idea, naturally

Emily Green visits a 'revolutionary' west London supermarket with West Coast aspirations
The owners of Planet Organic, which opened in Bayswater, west London, earlier this month, want to get one thing straight from the outset: it is a "revolutionary natural food supermarket", not a health-food shop.

Whatever it is, it has a few stylish tendencies: it sells a decent selection of organic wines, has a juice and coffee bar, a florist, and even a spray of flowers at one of the checkouts, and the woman on the till is pretty enough to sell cigarettes in Quaglino's. Large blown-up black-and-white photographs of farm scenes are displayed at reception.

The first shelves one approaches are stocked with vegetables, including greenish English tomatoes, neatly trimmed spring onions, luscious watercress, smooth-skinned Israeli avocados. Those unused to seeing oranges, lemons and limes in their natural state may wonder where the fluorescent colours and waxy textures have got to. Most impressive was a great selection of different varieties of strangely shaped gourds, which were stacked around a pot plant to artistic effect. Yet they might as well have been plastic: no one did what any vendor in a Caribbean, Indian or Italian market would do - slice some open to show the flesh.

Just past the gourds is a cornucopia for pill poppers, a hypochondriac's heaven: aisle after aisle of vitamins A-Z, ginsengs, homeopathic remedies for coughs and colds, rheumatism, burns, pimples, eczema, scrapes and PMT. By way of beauty aids there are hennas, aloe rubs and fragrant shampoos.

Only in the second half of the store does one discover most of the food. There are some nice products: blue corn chips, Shipton Mill flour, Denes Crunchy Wholegrain Health Logs (for dogs). However, the breads are a scandal: none are day-fresh, some are brick-like parodies of sourdough. A cheese shelf is clinical looking, not a patch on that in a decent deli, never mind Neal's Yard Dairy in London's Covent Garden. It should be added that many farmhouse English cheeses are organic in everything but labelling.

At the very rear is the revolutionary part: a meat counter with freshly ground mince, good organic chickens (Soil Association-certified happy birds) and some nice-looking little lamb chops. I bought some of the mince, which proved too lean for my taste but still good. A chicken, muscular enough to convince one that it had really ranged freely, boiled nicely and produced flavourful meat and excellent stock. Size 4 eggs, costing pounds 1.49 for six, were a disaster. The chickens who laid them may have been having a great old time, but their eggs had been out of the henhouse too long to be of much use to a cook. The whites were thin, the yolks collapsing. Planet Organic should note that even Sainsbury's puts the dates when eggs are laid on the box.

Next the fish section. A wet fish counter had some undyed haddock, good- looking herring and ultra-pink salmon. One wonders where the haddock came from, since there is precious little in the North Sea. Though cordial, Planet Organic's staff are not particularly convincing about the provenance of their fish: of two men behind the counter, one told me their salmon was from Ireland, the other confidently said it was from Bristol. In fact, though not labelled as such, it was most likely Glenarm salmon, produced in Northern Ireland and marketed through an agent in the West Country.

Glenarm is the best of farmed salmon, the fish penned in netted enclosures in the open sea. But, as the Belfast Office of Trading Standards told me when I first repeated Glenarm's assurances that its salmon was "natural", the fish is dyed. It uses a "nature identical" dye. (Planet Organic's press statement insists there are no nature identical flavourings in its stock, but says nothing about dyes.)

And while Glenarm claims not to use dichlorvos, a highly toxic chemical used to control sea lice, it did seek, and has permission, to use it. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of any salmon farming operation, particularly one in the open sea, is the inevitable escape of farmed stocks during storms. These escaped fish can then interbreed with wild stocks, potentially disrupting genetically programmed migration patterns.

I made two visits to Planet Organic a week apart. By the second visit, the display and quality of produce had improved noticeably. However, it will take years for this shop to gain any resemblance to the Californian organic supermarkets it appears to emulate. These stores evolved over 25 years, not as some quick Good Idea. Monterey Market in Berkeley, or the Farmer's Market in Los Angeles, do not devote half their shelf space to pills, but to fresh vegetables and herbs. Their mushrooms are not restricted to cultivated brown buttons, but take in dozens of wild varieties, including chanterelles and ceps. They eschew plastic bags and sell reusable canvas carriers. Their owners display produce like the Italians, cook like the French, and know their producers by their first names.

Planet Organic is not a supermarket but a vaguely promising health-food shop with a meat counter. Mind you, like a supermarket, Planet Organic sells literature by the checkout. Not Hello! or the Radio Times, but the Green Guide for West London, The Te of Piglet and The Tao of Pooh.

Next week, Emily Green reports on Out of This World. Described as 'Britain's first green supermarket chain', the store opened in Bristol yesterday and eight more branches are planned nationwide, including London and Nottingham, by 1996.

The following price comparison is made between standard conventional ranges of products from Sainsbury's and Planet Organic. Only the milk costed is organic, and of identical quality, in both instances. It should be stressed that the prices do not necessarily reflect quality, which varies time to time, producer to producer. For example, while the organic chicken was noticeably better than conventional, the organic eggs were in poor condition. The comparison should be viewed purely as an indication of the sorts of premiums commanded by foods marketed as environmentally friendly.


chicken pounds 1.03/lb pounds 2.28/lb

mince 99p/lb pounds 3.13/lb

yoghurt 59p/150g 37p/120g

cottage cheese 79p/227g 79p/250g

spinach 69p/200g (approx pounds 1.55/lb) pounds 1.09/lb

tomatoes 49p/lb 95p/lb

clementines 59p/lb pounds 1.99/lb

Cox apples 55p/lb 85p/lb

lemons 18p each (at 3oz each, approx pounds 1.08/lb) pounds 1.25/lb

bananas 29p/lb pounds 1.39/lb

Six size-4 eggs 79p pounds 1.49

organic milk 38p/pint 49p/pint

tin of dog food 46p/400g 79p/400g