(May 19, 2:25 p.m.) A study of consumer purchases puts fresh fruit at the top of the list of organic purchases.

The study, which examined consumers’ organic buying patterns, shows fresh fruit as the highest-selling organic category.

“The Many Faces of Organic 2008,” an online survey of 2,161 U.S. consumers — conducted by The Hartman Group, Inc., Bellevue, Wash., and co-sponsored by Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla. — shows 45% of primary household shoppers bought organic fresh fruit in November through January.

In a study of phrases and labels, the survey ranked “fresh” as the overwhelming top label consumers picked in buying foods and beverages. Up to 76% of respondents picked “fresh” while “pesticide-free” was the next highest, at 48%. Labels such as “natural,” “locally grown,” “sustainable” and “USDA organic” were also ranked.

Laurie Demeritt, president of The Hartman Group, said organic produce — especially organic fruit — has always been a gateway to organic purchasing. She said fresh fruit remains one of the first items consumers usually try when buying organic. The study also shows shoppers continue to purchase organic fresh fruit even as they buy more organic items.

“It continues to be a strong part of what organic symbolizes to consumers,” she said. “We think fruit along with dairy and meat are probably the strongest categories in terms of consumer participation in organics. When you look at packaged and processed goods, consumers don’t see the same value in terms of those products being organic.”

Demeritt said she believes organic fruit demand should remain strong although the overall organic category is seeing some dropoff in other categories.

FRESHNESS DRIVES PURCHASING

Robert Verloop, Naturipe’s vice president of marketing, said the study indicates consumers who identify themselves as organic buyers clearly see “fresh” as a key factor that helps them with their food purchases.

“This reinforces to (the) produce industry that freshness continues to be a driver for organic purchasing,” Verloop said. “Overall, the produce industry has a focus on freshness. This study, though not designed to uncover this, certainly made that jump out.”

Verloop said fresh produce possesses “authenticity” or is trusted by consumers as not being tampered with compared to other food products.

“The implications of this reinforces with retailers that consumers are looking at the produce department as a key area to source organic products,” he said. “This will lead to a much more loyal consumer for the entire supermarket. As produce goes, so goes the rest of the store. This is nothing but good news for us. It underscores that we are in the right place at the right time.”

A recent report from the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., balanced the positive news on organics.

LOCAL OVER ORGANIC

FMI’s 16th annual “Shopping for Health 2008” survey, released May 5 at the FMI Show in Las Vegas, revealed some insights on why shoppers may choose locally grown produce over organically grown.

In the online survey, conducted by Harris Interactive in November, half of consumers said they would choose locally grown produce instead of organic when the costs are the same. Organics received 28% approval on that question.

Among reasons consumers who once bought organic no longer purchase organic, 70% of respondents said organic is too expensive, 39% cited lack of difference between organic and nonorganic foods and 33% cited concern about organic produce safety.

In The Hartman Group study, consumers were even willing to pay a premium for organic fresh fruit. Up to 64% of respondents who regularly buy organic fresh fruit said they are willing to pay 30% more for organic fresh fruit.

Citing confidentiality reasons, Demeritt declined to provide names of other study co-sponsors and said the full report should be released June 1.