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Back to Basics


Organic food sales on the rise.

Organic food sales on the rise.

There’s compelling evidence to indicate that along with our food, each of us is ingesting a cocktail of pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals every day. As science builds bigger and better tools to grow a bigger and better food chain, consumers are starting to voice their concerns. When it comes to chemically dependent food, consumers are starting to wonder, “What is this stuff doing to me?”

Organic food sector growing quickly
One of the fastest growing segments right now is the organic food sector. According to Statistics Canada, sales of organic food are posting annual increases of 20 per cent. Canadian organic retail growth is expected to result in sales of $3.1 billion in 2005.

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Farming organically is a challenge
It’s an important trend to note because producing organic food items is not for the faint of heart. The conditions necessary to claim a product as “organically grown” are numerous and stringent. Relying on natural pest control and fertilization is not conducive to high production yields or food items as large as those produced using modern science. Organic farming is defined as a holistic production method that is sustainable and in harmony with the environment. Organic foods are produced without the use of chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides, processed without the use of irradiation, and are not created through genetic engineering. Livestock are provided ethical medical treatment that promotes good health and prevents disease. The area around the farm must be pesticide free to prevent cross contamination from other sources. You can imagine how challenging it must be for these producers to compete with farms that can churn out greater volume and more attractive product via farming methods using chemicals. The cost to produce organic food is greater and, therefore, this is reflected in a higher selling price. Yet – sales are skyrocketing.

Consumers increasingly attracted to organic foods
The consumer attraction to organic foods probably stems from three trends; an aging population concerned with health issues, global mistrust of governments and big corporations and a concern for the environment. Canada’s large baby boomer cohort are currently in their 40s and 50s. As boomers start to watch their friends and family struggle with illness, it’s natural for them to wonder what changes they can make to extend the quality of their lives. They also start to ponder what toll the cumulative effect of their lifestyle may be taking on their health.

Is the fox guarding the chicken coop?
Then there’s the issue of trust. In a world that routinely sees corporations and governments cut corners and play fast and loose with the truth, consumers are wondering if the fox may just be guarding the chicken coop (and feeding the chickens hormones). Environmental watch dogs have criticized the government for lagging behind in their review of older pesticides still in use and for their approval methods of new ones. The Quebec Institute of Public Health reported last October that children in Quebec tested positive for evidence of pesticide residue at a level of twice that of other industrialized nations such as Italy and the U.S. The study claims that even at twice the level of other nations, the results are still far from reaching risky levels for short-term exposure. Somehow, that doesn’t seem comforting if it’s your kid that’s just come home with these test results.

The organic food consumer
So, what does the Canadian organic food consumer look like? According to a profile by the Alberta government, the answer is surprising. Organic foodies tend to skew to two ‘psychographic’ mindsets. On one end of the scale you have the “affluent healers” representing baby boomers with some wealth who are attracted to organics for the health benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the “new green mainstream” group populated by Canadians aged 25-34 who choose organic food for environmental reasons. Researchers find that this younger group is willing to pay more for organic food because they view it as an investment in our planet. The food industry shouldn’t assume that less affluent younger consumers wouldn’t pay extra for organic foods – the research suggests otherwise. Heavy/regular buyers of organic foods in Canada represent 18 per cent of the population. Of this group, 60 per cent are female; they are more likely to be from B.C. (30 per cent). They are less likely to be from either Saskatchewan (7 per cent) or Alberta (12 per cent) and they are slightly more likely to be in the 25-34 age group than in the over 55 age group.

Popular in Europe and the U.K.
Europe and particularly the U.K. have embraced organic food retailing through both grocery and foodservice. Restaurants with strictly organic themes are not uncommon in Europe. Canadians still primarily consume organic foods purchased at large chain grocery stores but the opportunity for foodservice to tap into this trend is huge. If consumers are eating organic foods at home, they’ll certainly be receptive to ordering them at a restaurant. High-end restaurants and health themed establishments are leading the charge however; casual dining and quick service restaurants are starting to take notice.

Pressure to phase out antibiotics
McDonalds in Canada and the U.S. have been pressuring their meat suppliers to phase out the use of antibiotics on their animals. The concern stems from the fact that when antibiotics are overused in animals, some bacteria adapt and thrive. They become “super bugs” and the drugs become useless against them. The drug resistant microbes get passed on to us via environmental contamination or if the meat is undercooked. If the bacteria make us sick, doctors often prescribe the same antibiotics that are also used on animals. Doctors are often discovering that the drugs don’t work.

Try promoting an organic item
Consider adding one organic meal to your menu. Test it for a few weeks at a slightly higher price point and make sure to promote it as organic. Try an Earth Day promotion featuring organic foods, awareness about recycling and perhaps giving away some vegetable seeds for planting. Chances are excellent that you will discover that many of your patrons will welcome the opportunity to save the planet … and save themselves.

Michelle Brisebois specializes in brand strategies. Michelle can be reached at briseboismichelle@sympatico.ca.