(May 15) AUSTIN, Texas — Meeting the very day a national consumer group grabbed headlines by reporting that one-fourth of organic produce could contain traces of pesticides, the leaders of the organic industry converged in Austin to discuss the future of the industry.

At the second yearly All Things Organic Conference and Trade Show May 8-11, organized by the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., attendees heard how the industry, to maintain longevity, must attract more diverse consumer groups by promoting more than organic foods’ environmental benefits.

Organic Trade Association officials said the report was favorable to organics and critical of pesticides.

The event attracted more than 1,500 attendees representing 200 companies and organizations from 20 countries. More fresh produce companies had booths at the trade show; 13 this year compared to last year’s eight.

“It would be nice to see more produce exhibits here,” said Diane Dempster, organic produce buyer for Charlie’s Produce, Seattle. “Proportionally, it’s not bad for produce, but the focus isn’t on produce.”

One new exhibitor this year, the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee expressed surprise over the interest the organization received.

“We were shocked and impressed,” said Bill Nelson, the commission’s regional manager. “We normally receive very few questions at other shows. But everyone that walks by has been interested in Washington organics.”
The future of organic sales, speakers said, is in the 35,000 mass grocery supermarkets, of which 6,500 have clearly defined natural food sections or “stores within stores” compared to the 800 large, independent natural food stores.

“The products have near universal appeal,” said Bob Burke, owner of Natural Foods Consulting, Andover, Mass. “They should be sold where most people do most of their shopping. They’re not just for cranky, neurotic natural food types.”

Mainstream retail outlets account for more than half of natural and organic sales. Most organic fresh produce — 60.5% — is sold in conventional supermarkets; 39.1% is sold in natural foods stores.

New national organic standards, to become law Oct. 21, have increased consumer awareness and have cleared the way for large companies that were waiting on the sidelines to enter the organic field, speakers said.

Today’s organic consumers have a different appearance than those a decade ago, speakers said.

“The pool of organic users has changed,” Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., said in a session called “A Look at the Organic Consumer.”

“It’s much more mainstream and pragmatic,” she said. “It used to be high-education, high-income women in their forties who were likely Caucasian. It has really changed. We have found that there are lots of different types of people buying organic now.”