A NATURAL REACTION

Natural and organic product is slowly growing away from its roots in specialty retailing, and is branching into mainstream retailing.That being the case, it's time to take a new look at this type of product with two questions in mind:At the most basic level, what is it and what agency defines what product meets specifications?And, as natural and organic product moves toward finding expression in conventional

Natural and organic product is slowly growing away from its roots in specialty retailing, and is branching into mainstream retailing.

That being the case, it's time to take a new look at this type of product with two questions in mind:

At the most basic level, what is it and what agency defines what product meets specifications?

And, as natural and organic product moves toward finding expression in conventional stores, how should it be presented? As a special section, as product fully integrated into predominant categories, or something else?

As for the matter of definition, natural and organic product is usually thought of as being nearly any type of product commonly carried in a supermarket, with the proviso that it's free of chemicals, artificial coloring or flavors, synthetic sweeteners, bleached flour and the like. There's a news feature about natural products on Page 43.

Part of the problem with this definition is that there are no real standards stated or implied. There are private and state agencies that certify organics, but the question remains: By what means can shoppers, or anyone else, be confident that product said to meet the natural or organic standard does so, and does so on a nationwide basis?

That's a problem in search of a solution, which may come in the form of the Organic Foods Production bill. It seeks to define what constitutes "organic," and would impose standards nationally. The matter is expected to be taken up next year and enjoys the backing of many retailers. (See Page 47.)

Incidentally, with last week's presidential election out of the way, industry figures are pondering how governmentally oriented issues such as this one and others -- including the matter of juice safety described on Page 35 -- will play out in the future. For more on the industry view of the election, see Page 1.

But as for organic and natural product, the plethora of publicity and the very presence of specialty food retailers mean customers increasingly will expect to find it in their conventional shopping venue. That also means supermarkets must figure out how to source and market the product.

Many, and probably most, retailers merchandise natural and organic product in separate sections, but others integrate it into usual product offerings.

The answer here is probably to do both, but not simultaneously. It's probably a good idea to introduce the product lines by means of a separate section. That needs to be done to alert shoppers to its presence. Then, as acceptance is gained and as price points fall, the product can become an integral part of host categories. And, by the way, the differentiation may eventually be lost.

In any case, this maturation process will take time since sales of natural and organic product won't move straight up. SN's consumer surveys show that while a third of shoppers say they would like to see more product of this type, more than 60% say they would not pay more to get it.

Through it all, though, it's clear that natural and organic product is on its way to conventional-supermarket gondolas.