(Oct. 14, 1:55 p.m.) LOS ANGELES — At a time when scores of produce companies, along with firms in other industries, are talking doom and gloom, organic shippers in Los Angeles see room for a boom.

Consumers and retailers alike continue to patronize the organic category, which, at least in Southern California, seems to be defying the economic malaise and maintaining its growth phase.

“Our sales are growing by leaps and bounds,” said Frank McCarthy before he retired Aug. 1 as vice president of marketing at Albert’s Organics Inc., Bridgeport N.J. The company has a branch in Vernon, Calif., near Los Angeles.

Albert’s Organics was experiencing double-digit growth, he said.

David Weinstein, a salesman at Heath & Lejeune Inc., Los Angeles, vividly recalls periods when barely a day went by when someone didn’t lose a job or he didn’t hear reports about a company that was struggling, but, for the past 18 months, all the established organic companies have been growing, he said.

“It’s very gratifying,” he said. “Everyone is hiring. It’s full steam ahead.”

Demand remains strong, and organic growers, shippers or distributors aren’t taking a back seat to anyone, Weinstein said.

He attributed the heady times largely to the growers.

“They’re getting more professional, which makes our lives easier and enables us to provide better service,” he said.

Growers, Weinstein added, “are getting better and getting rewarded for getting better.”

The industry has gained enough political capital that the recently approved farm bill allocated significant monetary resources to support organic farming, he said.

That support includes funds for needs like organic certification and research into farming techniques, which pay off in the form of more and better organic produce.

Not only are consumers continuing to buy organics, but the trend seems to be gaining ground, said Jimmy Matiasevich, sales manager at JBJ Distributing Inc., Fullerton.

When the economy starts to sag, the organic business actually performs better because more people dine at home, he said.

Foodservice business drops off, but retail sales show a big improvement.

Another reason for the sales boost is that prices for organic produce are becoming more comparable to those of conventional fruits and vegetables.

Some retailers will switch to organic if the price falls to within 20% of conventional prices, Matiasevich said.

Organic produce is faring better at retail than in foodservice.

“Everybody (in retail) is getting a section with organic these days,” said Bill McCoy, chief financial officer for Better Life Produce Inc., Los Angeles. “A lot are trying (organics) to see how they move, and then many stick with them.”

To deal with widespread retail demand, Better Life Produce has diversified into packaged as well as bulk product and has created a merchandising team to help supermarkets set up an organic section develop a pricing structure.

There’s still a way to go before organic will be big at foodservice, he said.

That’s because the higher price of organic products makes controlling cost per plate more difficult, and because production gaps discourage chefs from putting items on their menus that may not be available year-round.

Chefs are more likely to feature items that are available all year, such as organic spring mix, McCoy said.

An ever-expanding selection of organic produce is another reason the category remains strong.

As more organic acreage becomes certified, growers venture outside the realm of conventional produce and into the specialty category, producing items like baby squashes, donut – or flat – peaches and yellow wax beans, McCoy said.

Organic figs is a category that Weinstein sees taking off. They’re not a big item yet, he said, but every year, growers produce more of them.

“Chefs are excited about them, they’re featured in magazines and on The Food Channel, and restaurants use them,” he said. “That creates more interest at retail.”

Other items gaining popularity are products from apple and stone fruit growers in Washington, McCarthy said.

Those growers have been converting more acreage to organic because the category has proved profitable for them, he said.

A change in the category that Weinstein is pleased to see is the trend toward revamping Price Look-Up stickers to play up the organic origins of fruits and vegetables.

In the past, the biggest thing on the sticker was the name of the grower, he said. The PLU number and the organic designation were much smaller.

“That’s useless,” Weinstein said. It didn’t let the consumer know that the product was organic, and it increased the possibility of a miss-ring by a checker, who might charge the shopper the conventional price rather than the higher organic price.

Today, he said, more shippers are making the PLU number and the organic designation the biggest items on the sticker, and the grower-shipper’s name is smaller.