Organic Food Gains Popularity Amid Pandemic

As consumers focus on health and wellness, organic foods are gaining popularity, reported Bloomberg (July 15).

Sales of organic food and drinks surged 25% for the 17-week period ended June 27, according to Nielsen, which is faster than the pace of total growth in the food segment. Foods with the organic label that have seen the largest increases from last year include meat, seafood, and frozen foods.

“We’re expecting strength to continue in organic and natural food sales,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jennifer Bartashus. “A lot of people have used the opportunity of working from home to really make a lifestyle change—lose weight and exercise,” she said in reference to the lockdowns.

Private-label organic products have experienced growth at retailers including Kroger Co. and Albertsons, according to Bartashus. In addition, companies including General Mills have seen an increase in demand for their organic offerings.

Consumers are purchasing more organics in an effort to “take care” of family and friends, according to General Mills CEO Jeffrey Harmening. The company experienced a jump its its organic portfolio in fourth quarter, including its Annie’s macaroni and cheese brand.

Poultry maker Bell & Evans saw a roughly 25% jump in its organic sales since the start of the pandemic. It is now boosting production and finding more farmers to provide birds for its organic frozen and fresh poultry.

Since the 2008 recession, the organic food market has changed, according to Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). New organic private labels grew 49% during that time, providing consumers with a range of options at various price points.

“You can get the high-end, award winning organic cheese, or you can buy the organic cheddar that’s two dollars,” she said.

Consumers are eating more organic food and using more organic products than ever before, according to the 2020 Organic Industry Survey released by the OTA. The U.S. organic sector posted a banner year in 2019, with organic sales in the food and non-food markets totaling a record $55.1 billion, up a solid 5% from the previous year. Organic food sales hit $50.1 billion, up 4.6%.

“Our 2020 survey looks at organic sales in 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak, and it shows that consumers were increasingly seeking out the Organic label to feed their families the healthiest food possible. The pandemic has only increased our desire for clean, healthy food,” said Batcha.

The association also conducted an online flash poll of 3,188 “likely organic” shoppers in late April and early May. More than 90% of respondents indicated that in their current food shopping, organic is more important than ever.

In response to the industry’s demands for better quality control, USDA unveiled new rules to combat organic fraud, reported The Counter (July 14). The new guidelines update organic regulations to mandate unannounced inspections, implement new traceability requirements for imported products, require labeling of non-retail containers, and put in place new oversight for the certification process.

The draft rules are largely supported by some of the industry’s largest interest groups like the OTA and the Cornucopia Institute.

“I think more rules are very necessary. And I think that organic food fraud—that uses non-organic substitute materials and portrays them as organic foods—is an easy opportunity for food fraudsters to deceive the general public,” said Doug Moyer, PhD, a professor of public health at Michigan State University, and a researcher at the university’s Food Fraud Institute.

Meanwhile, some food companies are stepping up funding for organic farming research, reported Civil Eats (July 13).

Clif Bar, King Arthur Flour, Organic Valley, and others are providing university endowments to counter a system stacked in favor of conventional agriculture. These endowments are critical as universities deal with collapsing revenues due to the pandemic, and many researchers face impending budget cuts.

“Our goal is to try to develop a new generation of ag professionals to serve the maturation of the organic sector,” said Matthew Dillon, senior director of government relations and agricultural programs at Clif Bar & Co. He noted the importance of an endowment is that it says, “this research is so important that we’re putting a stake in the ground and we’re going to make sure there is funding in perpetuity for these programs.”