The produce industry knew this to be the case, but consumer media and many consumers seemed to be shocked earlier this month by this revelation by Stanford University researchers who compared the nutrition of organic and non-organic food.
In the end, did people really believe eating an organic apple would be significantly healthier than a conventional apple?
It just didn’t pass the logic test.
That’s not to say there aren’t a number of advantages organic food has over conventional, if you value those advantages.
Some people want to make organic food and this recent study into an political issue.
You can do that with anything, can’t you?
In reading through the comments sections of consumer news sites who reported on the Stanford study, I continue to be entertained and bemused by the anger and cluelessness of commenters.
Some suggested the study was underwritten by Monsanto. Some suggested conventional produce’s pesticides will give us all cancer. Some say the media is intentionally misleading consumers to stop buying organic food.
Even on The Packer’s online story about the study, nearly 30 people commented, and they ranged from informed to inquisitive to outraged.
While organic fresh produce accounts for 3% to 5% of fresh fruits and vegetables sold at retail, depending on the data source, it’s an interesting and dynamic market that is tough to pigeonhole into an ideology.
I am constantly amazed by the wide gap between what the idealist wants to see in the organic produce market and the reality of the market, which is that organic has been embraced by many large produce companies.
These companies sell conventional and organic items to cater to as many consumers as they can.
Because they have this variety, they rarely resort to the negative marketing we see from some organic groups.
For instance, the Organic Trade Association’s consumer website, organicitsworthit.org, is devoted as much to denigrating conventional produce as it is promoting organic.
It has sections on the dangers of pesticides, synthetic hormones, genetically modified organisms and antibiotics.
Organic produce has too much appeal to resort to scaring consumers about conventional fruits and vegetables.
Another challenge organic produce must overcome is the price difference.
The Packer’s consumer survey Fresh Trends 2012 found that 27% of consumers said they typically buy organic fruits and vegetables, and 12% said they always buy organic fresh produce.
Of the rest who said they don’t typically buy organic produce, 46% of them said they would buy it if price wasn’t an issue.
This spring, price wasn’t much of a hurdle, evidently.
The latest FreshFacts report from United Fresh Produce Association showed a 14.6% sales gain for organic vegetables and a 20.3% sales increase for organic fruit in the second quarter.
For that period, the report said that organic vegetable sales accounted for 3.2% of total produce department sales, with organic fruit comprising 2.1% of total produce sales, which means 5.3% of fresh produce purchases were organic.
I used apples earlier as an example because it’s a perfect item to illustrate organic’s growing market niche. Washington has an arid climate well-suited for organic growth, as it accounts for nearly all of the commercial organic apple volume.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, 14,600 of the 167,000 planted acres were certified organic in 2011, which is just under 9%.
Anyone who thinks a study like Stanford’s will hurt organic foods’ popularity isn’t paying attention to market indicators.
As the OTA’s executive director Christine Bushway pointed out, nutritional benefits have never been a prime motivation for organic consumers.
Wherever organic produce’s plateau is, we haven’t seen it yet.
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.