Organic meat preachers set for a clean sweep at the Brit beef awards

The UK's first additive-free supermarket is cashing in on the BSE scare. Robin Stummer dishes the dirt
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The Independent Online
Just to the left of the pickled samphire, beyond the kombu seaweed and not far from the shitake mushrooms ("grown the traditional way in Hampshire") lies the meat counter. At first glance, it's pretty typical butchers' fare - beef, chicken, turkey, black pudding. Closer examination, however, reveals that this is something special. The steak isn't the usual processed brown, it's deep red - a living colour; the veal isn't pallid and guilt-inducing, it's a healthy pink. And those black puddings are fuller, more considered constructions than the menacing extrusions of gloom familiar to British shoppers. In short, this is Planet Organic, Britain's first additive-free, totally natural supermarket.

Opened only 18 months ago in fashionable Bayswater, west London, the store has already secured a reputation as the Fortnum & Mason of environmentally sound, politically correct food, and counts among its customers glitterati such as Ruby Wax, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, Kylie Minogue and Terence Stamp - drawn as much to the selection of humble carrots, onions and tomatoes as the miso paste and soy flour. Planet Organic is now considering widening its orbit by launching a string of satellite shops throughout the South- east, bringing sustainable produce within easy reach of millions.

A success for our organic farming industry then? Not entirely. Despite enormous growth in consumer demand for "real" food following scares over BSE, additives and the recent E. coli outbreaks, a combination of government miserliness and heavily subsidised imports from the Continent means that British producers are missing out on an organic bonanza worth over pounds 200m a year. "We believe in supporting local growers, but it's just not possible at the moment," says Planet Organic director Renee Elliott. "Around 75 per cent of our fruit and veg is imported, though in winter 50 per cent is British."

Planet Organic's vegetable prices hold up well. It is selling carrots at pounds 1.09 a kilo and tomatoes at pounds 2.95 a kilo. This compares with Sainsbury's, which is selling ordinary tomatoes at around pounds 1.09p a kilo, organic tomatoes at pounds 4.36 for approximately one kilo, ordinary carrots at around 49p a kilo and organic carrots at around pounds 1.70 a kilo. But if you fancy an organic chicken, then Planet Organic are asking pounds 6.90 a kilo. Sainsbury's regular bird retails for between pounds 2.15 and pounds 2.50 a kilo.

Over 120,000 acres of agricultural land are now considered organic - an increase of 13 per cent on 1995 - but that's still far short of what's required for Britain to be self-sufficient. The number of outlets devoted to organic food has more than doubled in recent years - they now number nearly 500 - yet the big sellers, supermarkets, are importing up to 80 per cent of their organic produce.

"The current growth rate in the organic market is around 30 per cent a year," says Francis Blake, deputy director of the Soil Association, which campaigns for increased support for sustainable farming. "The number of organic farmers is steadily rising, but the Government is offering little incentive to convert from conventional production. The UK is bottom of the European league table when it comes to supporting organic farmers."

At the root of the problem lies the Government's free market interpretation of the Organic Aid Scheme. Part-funded by the EU, the scheme is intended to offer incentives to European farmers to change to sustainable farming. However, it was left up to individual governments to set subsidy levels. In Britain, farmers are paid pounds 70 per hectare for the first five years to convert to organic - less than half the EU average.

"The British grant is the lowest in Europe," says Blake. "Here, it's just not worth converting."

Whitehall sees it differently. "We wish to encourage organic production," an agriculture ministry spokesman said last week, "but we don't want people to become subsidy-dependent. Ministers feel that the rates are appropriate; they want market forces to operate as soon as possible. If farmers get their sums right, there's a healthy market for organic produce."

However, in the wake of BSE, government and farmers are beginning to come together to exploit a healthy market for organic food, especially meat. Under the Organic Conversion Information Service, a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scheme administered by the Soil Association, farmers interested in going organic are offered a help-line, information packs and on-farm advisory visits. Interest has been enormous, with more than three times the expected take-up - mainly from dairy and livestock producers.

But for now, those shops which can, somehow, lay their hands on regular supplies of top-quality British organic meat are able to sell and sell till the cows come home, even though prices are 25 to 100 per cent higher than for supermarket meat. There's a limitless market. At Planet Organic, Lee Castle, head of the meat department and a fourth-generation butcher, is bullish. "All our produce is British-sourced. BSE is the best thing that ever happened to us. There's a 50 per cent rise in turnover every time there's a scare, and those who are buying our meat go from refuse collectors to the very rich.

"I've even sent meat to Indonesia and Sri Lanka - 30lbs of sausages and 14lbs of bacon for a man who wanted real English breakfasts."

Given the political will, it might just be possible that the organic movement could help save Britain's bacon.