Nurturing support for an organic future

The Soil Association hopes to attract thousands of new members, but can it counter the recent backlash against organic foods?

The Soil Association (SA), the organic food industry’s standard bearer, is launching a scheme that it hopes will recruit thousands of new members.

The charity says the organic food market increased by 55 per cent last year, and it needs to keep raking in membership fees to protect the interests of organic producers.

It costs &£24 to join the SA, so in July the association launches an incentive scheme in the form of money-off vouchers to attract new members. The SA has 15,000 subscribers, of whom 11,000 are members of the public, and 4,000 licensed producers. It certifies almost three-quarters of the UK’s organic-food producers.

Even as the clamour for organic food continues, the sector is coming under fire from some that are sowing the seeds of doubt about organic as a viable alternative.

Last week, the British Dietetic Association heard a speech from food expert Dr Keith Goulding criticising health claims made by organic food companies and producers. Dr Goulding claims there is “no scientific background” to suggest that organic food is healthier than modern farm produce. Last year, Food Standards Agency (FSA) chairman Professor Sir John Krebs claimed consumers were “wasting their money” on paying extra for supposedly safer and better-tasting food.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is aware of the backlash against claims about organic food. It has upheld several complaints in the sector recently and referred the matter to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

Press ads for Sainsbury’s, by M&C Saatchi, were banned in March this year when the authority ruled the phrase “a commitment to using more natural farming methods” could lead consumers to believe all methods used by organic producers were more natural than synthetic procedures.

Tesco and Simply Organic are among other brands to have been censured by the ASA. The SA also had its knuckles rapped for claiming organic food was better on taste, healthier and more environmentally friendly – falsely, says the ASA.

CAP, which draws up codes for UK advertisers to follow, regulates issues from price claims to holidays. The organic code, which will be published in the next few weeks, has been drawn up in consultation with consumers, producers and scientists.

Health claims, in food ads and on packaging, have been a bone of contention for some time, and the FSA is now drawing up its own code of practice. An ASA spokeswoman says: “There’s confusion as to what kind of claims organic producers can make and how they are substantiated. The code will help advertisers avoid having us upholding complaints against them.”

The SA is already hitting back. In a speech at Marketing Week’s Going Organic conference last week, SA marketing director Martin Cottingham said: “As organic farming becomes more successful, health claims are coming under closer scrutiny. The market may have grown, but it remains fragile.

“Only seven per cent of consumers are committed enough to buy organic every week. If there is a recession, those for whom it is a fringe purchase may drop it.”

The association’s own research reveals a substantial number of respondents no longer believe organic food is healthier than other produce – 42 per cent this year compared with 53 per cent in 1999. Fewer people now (27 per cent) think organic food is better than they did two years ago (28 per cent).

As part of its incentive scheme. the SA has commissioned a print run of 400,000 books, including coupons for top brands such as Jordan’s, Yeo Valley, Baby Organics, Mars’ Seeds of Change and Café Direct. At least 18 other organic brands have signed up to the scheme.

There is also an incentive for producers to sign up. By featuring the SA’s dedicated website – soilassociation.org – on packs, companies will receive a discount on the cost of joining the promotion.

The bulk will be mailed to homes that fit the SA’s target profile: 45to 60-year-olds, and ABC1 families with young children. Most households will fall within the catchment areas of a Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Waitrose supermarket.

The SA hopes the more regular consumers of organic produce will hand over membership fees, but it also wants to seduce “organic virgins” into supporting the cause.

SA head of membership Stephen Last, who is overseeing the voucher scheme, says: “It’s important to raise awareness and understanding of the widespread benefits of organic food.

“All major supermarkets have embraced organic food. There’s no sign of that slowing.”

But, Iceland’s calamitous withdrawal from the organic market earlier this year casts a shadow of doubt over the SA’s enthusiasm.

Last also admits: “There is a danger that, as organic becomes more mainstream, there will be pressure to reduce prices. That could lower the standard of produce generally.”

Although the organic market appears to be growing at a fast rate, economic experts believe there is a limit to how popular the food can become. One City analyst says: “It has to reach a ceiling. It’s something only certain people would be interested in.

“Organic is a secondary consumer market. It’s not like convenience food, which is a primary market that will see higher and higher demand.”

The SA and organic producers hope the scheme will nourish healthy interest in the sector. But if consumer interest has peaked, industry bosses could find themselves scrabbling in the dirt for cash.

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