Organic Articles: THE EXPO EAST EXPERIENCE

THE EXPO EAST EXPERIENCE

Simon Wright
O&F Consulting

Lots going on in the run up to Expo East, Baltimore with the Organic Consumers Association (one man and a website, allegedly) accusing organic certifier QAI of helping major organic dairy company Aurora deal with the media fall-out of their being found in violation of the NOP organic regs. Threats and counter-threats followed revealing some ugly fissures in the US organic sector.

I was in Baltimore to deliver a seminar on current developments in the UK / EU organic sector (email me at simon at organicandfair.com if you would like a copy). By the time I got to Baltimore the temperature was 80+, not that you’d have known it from the savagely air-conditioned, totally windowless exhibition centre (why do US health shows always take place in such unhealthy places?).

In addition to countless brands of tea, soft drinks and snack bars on display there was a staggering array of organic cat and dog products. Apparently problems with pet food from China has stimulated US-sourced organic petfood solutions including Pet Promise which bears the endorsement of the inescapable Andrew Weil MD, habitue of daytime TV chatshows. Mr Weil was literally all over the show plugging everything from saucepans to snack bars (the latter very good and produced by Nature’s Path). Strange to see the Rachel’s brand being used on non-organic yoghurt in the US, although it was exceedingly nice yoghurt. Regarding retailers Whole Foods continued to impress, Trader Joe’s were doing well with a predominantly own-label offer whilst fellow travellers Tim Powell (Community) and George Hodin (Planet Organic) were knocked-out by their visit to Wegmans Food Markets.

Hot topic at the receptions and dinners I went to was the growth of local at the possible expense of organics, ie a debate very similar to that lead by Joanna Blythman here in the UK. More fascinating insights into the US Organic Consumer were delivered during a seminar presented by Byron Freney of The Hartman Group. Some juicy nuggets from Hartman’s consumer research included the fact that the term ‘natural’ is now meaningless to consumers and that life stage and life style of organic consumers is more important than their age. In terms of future development Byron claims that organic is becoming a broad quality distinction, so that organics becomes less about objective distinctions and definitions and acquires more of a symbolic value.

Again echoing the UK experience, Byron suggested the US organic sector will need to emphasise the more ‘foodie’ values of local, seasonal and artisanal. His recommendation on building US sales is “simple packaging with impactful narrative of people and place” with narrative to provide “soul” and to “humanise the organic experience”. I could have done with a bit more ‘humanisation’ myself by the time I got back to Heathrow but the Melatonin helped. Next year the show will be in Boston, which will certainly make for a better social scene – they really are rockin’ in Boston! (http://www.myspace.com/simonjcwright for more). And the Expo East experience has got me thinking about some new organic products for the UK market (watch this space…)