Mars tries to exploit organic foods boom

Mars’ move into processed organic foods (MW April 22) says as much about the needs of the US confectionery giant as it does about the growth of the UK organic market.

After decades of churning out Mars Bars, the company has branched into new areas with varying degrees of success. Mars was the first confectionery manufacturer to develop ice-cream versions of its chocolate brands. But it lagged behind rivals in other areas with its late entry into licensing agreements with other food manufacturers to extend those chocolate brands into cakes and chilled desserts (MW April 21).

The launch of its Seeds of Change organic business in the UK is its latest foray, with pasta sauces and dried pasta being the first products on the supermarket shelves.

A Seeds of Change spokesman says: “Growth in organic food has been clear for some time and of course food scares can only serve to fuel interest in organic goods, but we believe this is part of a much longer term trend and, as such, Seeds of Change has been working for the past 18 months on bringing its products to the UK market.”

Mars first became involved with organic food when it acquired privately-owned Seeds of Change – based in Santa Fe, California – which had launched by selling organic seeds by mail order. Stephen Badger, the son of Jackie Mars – the daughter of Mars founder Forrest Mars Sr – has been president of Seeds of Change since the company’s acquisition by Mars in 1997.

In the US, Seeds of Change sells organic pasta, pasta sauces, rice and grain blends, soups, salsa and salad dressings. It is likely that the rest of the organic products promised for the UK later in the year will come from this range.

Whether other major food manufacturers will immediately follow Mars into processed organic food is a big question for hard-pressed producers operating in saturated markets. They will, after all, try almost anything to kick-start sales – such as margarine brand Benecol that claims to reduce cholesterol content in the blood.

One City analyst says: “I think all the blue-chip companies have been looking at the organic market for quite some time and some may want to see how retailers and consumers react to Mars’ organic food range before deciding what to do.”

He says that the although the UK organic food market is growing, it is starting from a low base and is still relatively small for global food companies. But there is strong growth. The Soil Association, a charity which promotes organic food and farming, claims organic food sales in the UK have risen in value from 100m in 1993 to about 260m in 1997.

Of that 260m, the Soil Association claims fruit and vegetables accounted for more than 50 per cent of the market at a value of 140m, cereals accounted for 35m, processed food and dairy 15m each, beverages and meat 12m each and baby food about 7m.

The Soil Association estimates that by the year 2001 organic food sales will have grown from two per cent of the total food market to seven to eight per cent, with a potential retail value of 1bn.

Although organic farming avoids the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on land, use of the word organic is defined by national and European Union legislation and can include specified non-organic produce and preservatives. And it is possible that genetically modified produce could find its way into the organic food chain.

Francis Blake, standards and technical director for the Soil Association, has noted an increase in companies applying to the charity for certification, showing that they comply with their own higher standards.

He says: “They can see which way the market is going and they realise the need to get into organic food. Supermarkets are turning to conventional suppliers and saying ‘we need organic products’ as they respond to the market.”

Brand names not solely associated with organic food are beginning to emerge. W Jordans produces an organic muesli and Baxters of Speyside is about to launch an organic range of soups and conserves.

But the big global players such as Heinz and Procter & Gamble, which sell organic produce in the US, and Nestlé, which has interests in organic food, are not making any fast moves into the UK organic market. Kellogg admits involvement in “significant product research and innovation” in the area, but has not yet produced a range of organic products.

One food industry insider says: “It is not a stable situation and some companies are making decisions based on current predictions. The market may stabilise as it did for beef after the BSE scare.

“Organic food is only one aspect of foods for the future and one that is more familiar and easier to develop than some of the other options such as GM foods which will require longer term development.”

Blake claims growth in the organic market was evident before BSE and GM food scares hit the headlines and the only time the market remained static was during the recession.

But the organic market is hamstrung by a shortage of supplies, a factor which could affect growth in the sector.

Unless other manufacturers follow Mars into the UK market and farmers are encouraged to convert to organic farming methods with the support of supermarkets, consumers could be left with a very limited choice.

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