(May 6) CHICAGO — Exhibitors on the show floor at the All Things Organic conference May 2-4 welcomed the red badges and blue suits, a sign that partnering with the Food Marketing Institute expo and United 2004 drew interest from buyers attending the organic show for the first time.

The red badges, worn by natural foods retailers and their conventional counterparts, might not have been a dead giveaway to a crossover audience, but the suits were, several exhibitors said.

“I think blending the shows definitely made a difference,” said Maureen Royal, director of sales for CF Fresh, Sedro Woolley, Wash. “We’ve had several people come by from the FMI show.”

Many FMI attendees spent part of May 3, the second day of the show, at the organic exposition, one floor below the United, FMI and Fancy Foods shows.

BOOTH BUSINESS

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the show’s sponsor, the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association, said that aside from the other conferences, exhibitors at the organic show saw a lot of booth-to-booth business.

Harold Ostenson, an organic fruit grower and founder and grower liaison of PAC Organic, George, Wash., said the company’s participation in the new Sustainable Organic Family Farms alliance brought interest to his fresh fruit, but an organic baby food maker also expressed interest in purchasing apples for processing.

“That allows us to raise the quality of our fresh market apples also, because we’re sending lower grades for processing,” Ostenson said.

Mickey Jeffers, produce merchandiser for the Natural Retail Group, a 12-store chain based in Palm Harbor, Fla., was impressed with the displays and variety at the United show.

“That’s one of the biggest shows I’ve seen,” Jeffers said. “There’s a lot of stuff that catches your interest, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Even as conventional retailers stock more organic produce, longtime distributors like Heath & Lejeune Inc., Los Angeles, are finding that their knowledge of the category keeps them in the game, said vice president Rick Lejeune.

Halfway through the exposition hours, on the afternoon of May 3, half of the exhibitors had signed up for booth space at next year’s show, DiMatteo said. More than 480 companies exhibited this year, which is double that of the 2003 conference.

One of those companies, Chicago organic produce distributor Goodness Greeness, had missed the previous three All Things Organic shows in Austin, Texas, said sales manager Pat Bayor.

The new location was more convenient, and Boyer said the company’s considering finding space at the United and Produce Marketing Association expositions in the future.

“We definitely need to branch out and go to more mainstream shows as organic grows,” Bayor said.

DiMatteo said the association has a contract to have the show at the same time and location in 2005, and Organic Trade Association staff will meet soon to decide whether to commit to future FMI shows.

“I believe, from the feedback we’ve been getting, that we will want to make it a long-term relationship,” she said.

MEETING DEMAND

“Mainstreaming” was a common theme at the conferences, with All Things Organic, FMI and United sessions touching on the growth potential for the sector.

Datamonitor, a global business consulting and information company with offices in New York, projects organics will grow 21.4% a year between 2002 and 2007, to $30.7 billion.

The Organic Trade Association’s 2004 Manufacturer Survey, released May 2, puts organic produce sales growth last year at 20%, with 42% of the $10.38 billion in total organic food sales.

Gerald Herrmann, an international consultant for the organic industry and vice president of the International Federation of Agriculture Movements teamed up with Gene Kahn, vice president of sustainable development for General Mills Inc. during a session on mainstreaming organic products, which comprise about 2% of overall supermarket sales.

Herrmann said organic growth depends on several factors, including diverse sales channels, from direct marketing to retail and wholesale, moderate price premiums and promotion of the benefits of organic products. That growth also depends on a commitment from the seller, and as conventional marketers enter the organic category, they need to be committed to it, he said.

“If we want to move it beyond the 2%, we have to reach out to the normal customer, the normal consumer, and that means you have to deliver benefits,” Herrmann said.

The industry must also lobby for domestic policy shifts that consider organic commerce, but efforts to harmonize global standards are also critical, he said.

“I’m not arguing for lowering the standards of rigidity. I’m arguing for simplifying the standards, less bureaucracy and administrative procedures, and I’m pretty sure that people really want that,” Herrmann said. “We can achieve that. If there’s enough pressure, we will hopefully succeed.”