(Still) waiting for organic produce to 'jump the shark'I was visiting with a Midwest retail buyer last week and he mentioned the continued strong growth in organic produce sales in his organization.

He said some of firm's retail divisions reported 40% growth last year in organic sales.
Consumer sensitivity to pesticide and food safety issues may have helped spur the growth, the buyer told me.

“The younger people in the marketplace are looking for an alternative for what they have been buying,” he said to me.

As I reflected on the oft-questioned staying power of organic produce, I looked back in The Packer library and searched for the words "organic" and "fad" appearing in the same story.

I saw coverage from 1993 that quoted an organic produce distributor in the Northwest, giving his opinion about where the demand was coming from:

He said his company hasn't made inroads to supplying chain stores and that doesn't bother him. He believes the people who buy organic produce don't shop at chain stores.

``We don't consider it crucial to our well-being,'' he said about pushing organic produce at conventional retail stores. ``In my opinion the chains aren't where these people do most of their business.''

TK: Well that certainly has changed, hasn't it? In 2006,Wal Mart said it would double its organic offerings to a reported 400 stock-keeping-units, and many mainstream retailers followed suit.

In November 2007, Caren Wilcox, then executive director of the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association, told a reporter from The Packer that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic certification standards had given the organic category unprecedented legitimacy.

I recalled a column that I wrote in September 2008 covering John Stanton of Philadelphia-based St. Joseph's University, who was presenting at the U.S. Apple Marketing Conference that year. From the column:

  Stanton boldly said the organic food movement has "jumped the shark" and is now waning.

TK: Sorry, Mr. Stanton, but organic produce has not yet "jumped the shark." It may start its certain decline in some future year, but it hasn't happened just yet.

Coverage of organic produce in The Packer in January this year said the Organic Trade Association reported in its 2011 survey that 41% of families say they are "buying more organic" than they were a year earlier.

From that story by Jim Offner

The association also reported 78% of U.S. families are buying organic foods, up from 73% in 2009 and 2010. Although consumers said they had backed away from some organic purchases during tougher economic times, the OTA reported produce and dairy remained the primary categories within which U.S. families were most consistently buying organic. Nineteen percent said they "always buy" organic produce, which was level with 2009 and 2010.

TK: In the vein of this topic, I posed this question to the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group this week:

What type of average annual growth rate do you anticipate for organic produce sales in the next five years? Why?

So far the responses I have received vary from "no growth" to 13% or more growth annually. About 40% of the limited poll response so far estimates growth from 5% to 8% annually in the next five years.

The recent agreement to harmonize organic standards with Europe is certainly notable, but the future of organic produce will be related to home-grown consumer appreciation and confidence of what organic produce represents.

That's why the controversy over the use of antibiotics for treatment of fireblight in organic apples and pears is so potentially dangerous to the organic movement.

From a comment to the USDA from Beyond Pesticides, supporting the 2014 phaseout of streptomycin:  

The use of antibiotics is not sustainable, since it inevitably leads to resistance, as has been seen with streptomycin in the Pacific northwest. And in the long run, it leads to health problems for everyone on the farm—from the plants to the humans. For a summary of some of these problems, see the appendix to these comments.

Finally, organic consumers understand these things. They understand the importance of the threat of antibiotic resistance. An important reason that consumers buy organic meat is the absence of antibiotics. Organic consumers do not want antibiotics to be used on their fruit. Organic apple and pear growers have missed an opportunity to differentiate themselves from conventional growers. Instead of growing susceptible varieties, they should be educating consumers to know that Gala, Fuji, and Granny Smith apples are most likely to be treated with antibiotics, and that certain other varieties are not.

A comment from  the Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic Food Program has a different take:

WSDA appreciates that the NOSB considered public comments when adding the deadline for use of streptomycin for the control of fire blight in apples and pears. However, we do not feel that the proposed expiration date offers enough time to research and develop alternatives to its use in perennial tree fruit production. The 2014 date is arbitrary and not based on the research findings presented to the NOSB.

WSDA believes that the industry is open and willing to use other methods. A recent survey of organic orchardists in Washington State found that 73% had already tried non-antibiotic fire blight control regimes, but 67% said the results were not satisfactory. However, more time than is allowed by the current phase out date is needed to find alternatives for the control of fire blight. A four-year research project on organic fire blight control will commence in 2012, and this project needs to be given adequate time to test alternatives and train growers. Re-evaluating streptomycin in 2016 makes more sense to see how much progress has been made and whether an expiration date is justified. Further, surveys among our growers have shown that without an effective and reliable tool available to control fire blight, growers are likely to reduce or exit organic apple and pear production. WSDA does not believe this to be a desirable outcome of the proposed amendment.

TK: Yes there are some fireblight resistant varieties, but they are not fan favorites; what if consumers want gala, fuji and granny smith organic fruit? Navigating this "antibiotics on organics" issue while maintaining consumer confidence in the USDA seal is one of the primary challenges of the organic tree fruit industry in the next two years and beyond.

So what do readers think of the growth potential for organic produce in the next five years?

A. Jump the shark

B. Great guns