LOS ANGELES — One might think that, during economic hard times, premium-priced organic fruits and vegetables would be something consumers might cut back on. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Organic fruit and vegetable sales rose nearly 12% in 2009-10 to nearly $10.6 billion dollars, said Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing for Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics Inc., which has a branch in Vernon, Calif., just outside Los Angeles.
During the same year, total U.S. food sales grew by only 1%, he said.
“It seems that, relative to the baseline standard, organic is doing quite well,” Weinstein said.
Organic fruits and vegetables now account for nearly 12% of all U.S. produce sales, he said.
“These numbers are significant and show that while our economic recovery is a bit sluggish, people are not only continuing to purchase organic foods, but they are increasing their organic choices, and clearly, new shoppers of organic foods are coming on board,” Weinstein said.
That seems to be the case for a number of Southern California shippers.
“I don’t see any recession in organic produce,” said Nikki Nagel, sales manager for Better Life Produce Inc.
Sales at natural food stores are up by as much as 18% this year, she said. Conventional stores continue to look for ways to incorporate organics into their produce departments.
Families may not be buying new cars, but many mothers continue to shop for organic produce, she said.
“They are more educated than they were 10 years ago, and people want to eat more wholesome food,” Nagel said.
Organic produce is more attractive to consumers and retailers when prices are closer to conventional, said Jack Gyben, vice president and partner with Progressive Produce Corp. in Commerce, where business remains strong.
“Our business continues to grow because we continue to do more and more organic product and continue to react to our customers’ needs and requests,” he said.
Sales may be down a bit in some organic categories, but not in many of those that Progressive Produce offers.
Some of those categories — like potatoes, onions and asparagus — were underdeveloped, so there remains “a lot of upside potential,” Gyben said.
Chief executive officer Rick Lejeune described sales at Heath & Lejeune Inc. as steady, but not undergoing the large increases they did two to four years ago.
“There’s a noticeable flattening to the curve,” he said. “(But) the hardcore organic users are holding steady.”
Lejeune sees potential in smaller stores nationwide that are starting to show an interest in organics, as well as among Asian and Hispanic communities, where consumers already eat a lot of produce.
“They are aware of the value of fresh fruits and vegetables, so we need to put out the message that organics might be a superior alternative for them to consider from the standpoint of their health,” he said.
Fullerton, Calif.-based JBJ Distributing Inc./Veg-Land Inc., serves mass marketers across the U.S. and is starting to see an uptick in sales, said Steve Janedis, national director of business development.
“Overall demand continues to show positive growth,” he said.
When consumers started eating at home more often during the recession, some of them sought out organic produce in an effort to duplicate the taste profile that they got at their favorite restaurants, he said.