Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor
Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor

A recent Thomson Reuters-NPR Health Poll found a sizeable majority of the public saying they prefer organic food, with 58% of respondents reporting that as their preference.

The survey results are even more interesting in light of an April Organic Trade Association report placing organic’s share of the fresh fruit and vegetable market at nearly 12%, considerably higher than The Perishables Group’s retail scan data for organic fresh produce, which clock sales at 5.4% in 2010.

FreshLook Marketing data, which appears in The Packer’s 2011 Produce Availablity and Merchandising Guide, sets the bar even lower, at 3.8% of retail sales (excluding Wal-Mart).

It’s not just about a consumer desire to avoid toxins in their food (mentioned by 34.2% as a key purchasing factor).

Concern for the environment proved a bigger consideration.

Many members of the food-buying public file organic and local foods in the same category, though of course local can be organic or conventional and most organic food is not locally produced or sourced.

The survey suggests a desire to support local farms is the motivating factor for 35.7% of respondents.

Given that response, it’s no surprise that when asked where they prefer to obtain produce, the top choice was a farmers market (43%), with supermarkets at 32%, their own garden at 20% and farm co-op at 5%.

The survey suggests good intentions and good taste don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

A mere 13% said they purchase organics because they taste better.

The retail premium remains a hurdle for the majority, with 54% of those who prefer nonorganic food citing price as the main reason for that preference.

Other takeaways:

  • 21% said they prefer nonorganic food because it is more widely available; and
  • 11% believe nonorganic foods are safer.

For most foodservice patrons, organic menu offerings are not a priority. Only 34% say its presence on a menu would influence their ordering decision.

Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Brattleboro, Vt.-based OTA, told Markets Editor Andy Nelson that consumers choose organic not for only one or two reasons but rather for a more “holistic” mix of concern for the environment, local growers, health and taste.

Respondents younger than 35 were the most pro-organic, with 62.8% preferring the category.

Generation X and baby boomers weren’t far behind them, with 60.6% of consumers ages 35-64 reporting a preference for organics.

Support ran pretty deep among the 65-plus demographic too, with 44.8% preferring organics.

Haumann said this points to a rosy future for the organic food market as young shoppers more in tune with the perceived virtues of organic food start buying and consuming more.

Haumann said organic buyers are knowledgeable but not necessarily because of their academic credentials.

She said it’s not just people who have degrees who eat more organic but people who are better-educated in general about food choices and healthy lifestyles.

The survey found 52.7% of those with a high school education or less preferred organics, while those with some college ranked at 54.2% and college-plus were 63.5%.

The overall market for organic fruits and vegetables is sure to sustain growth, but it’s interesting to keep in mind that The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2011 consumer study found that some of the most popular items in the produce aisle — including potatoes, carrots, oranges, watermelon and cantaloupe — are among the least likely to be purchased organic.

But as the price gap between conventional and organic has narrowed in recent years, that is sure to fuel organics’ continued growth.

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