NATURALS, ORGANICS COME TO H-E-B

SAN ANTONIO -- H.E. Butt Grocery here will make its Central Market Organics and All Natural products available in all 150 H-E-B stores at the end of March to satiate customers who are fans of the fresh format.Central Market introduced the two lines in its seven stores last fall. The lines comprise more than 80 mainstream and specialty items spanning dairy, frozens and dry grocery categories and are

SAN ANTONIO -- H.E. Butt Grocery here will make its Central Market Organics and All Natural products available in all 150 H-E-B stores at the end of March to satiate customers who are fans of the fresh format.

Central Market introduced the two lines in its seven stores last fall. The lines comprise more than 80 mainstream and specialty items spanning dairy, frozens and dry grocery categories and are expected to number 200 by the end of the year.

Organics include canned tomatoes, microwave popcorn, cereal, juices and olive oil. In the All Natural line are pasta, cookie dough and espresso, to name a few. On the way are pizza, ice cream, cereal and cookies.

The expansion helps address the demand of customers who have been clamoring for more Central Market stores, H-E-B's fresh and prepared foods format, said Christy Guth, publicist for H-E-B. The retailer plans to open its eighth Central Market in Dallas in 2006, she added.

"This is kind of a way to bring the taste of Central Market without having to build a full-fledged store," Guth said.

Central Market isn't the first retailer to capitalize on growing demand for natural and organic food with a house brand. What's unusual is the retailer's claim that its All Natural line is made without genetically modified ingredients.

U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic products must start with ingredients free of genetically modified organisms. "Natural" is an unregulated term, though, and doesn't imply GM ingredient-free when applied to food.

At least one other retailer, Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, also makes its natural store-brand products without GM ingredients. Whole Foods has said the store's own-brand natural as well as organic products have been GM-ingredient-free since October 2001. A check of Web sites of several other retailers with natural store-brand lines found no such claim about those products, though.

Unlike the term "certified organic," which is government-regulated, "natural" is a moving definition.

"Other than natural meat," said Lori Wyman, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, "the term doesn't mean anything."

Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh, for example, says its Nature's Basket all-natural foods are free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, and "cruelty-free tested."

Ahold's Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., said its Nature's Promise line of natural and organic products, introduced in September 2004, are "free of artificial colors and flavors, hydrogenated oils, and bleached and bromated flours."

At Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., "natural means no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, no hydrogenated oils and no high-fructose corn syrup," stated the company on its Web site.

The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require GM foods to be labeled as such, and Whole Foods said it didn't label its store-brand products as GM ingredient-free.

"Currently, there are unresolved concerns related to when the FDA will issue a final labeling rule regarding products that either contain or do not contain genetically engineered ingredients and the specifications of those requirements," the company stated on its Web site. "Accordingly, Whole Foods Market has decided not to speculate on the final rules and prematurely print labels that may need to be revised." Central Market, for its part, states on packaging and in store brochures that the All Natural line is GM ingredient-free.

The retailer's espresso package reads, "This product was made from ingredients that were not grown from genetically modified seed."

A Texas group, called Say No to GMOs, for the past few years has lobbied H-E-B and Whole Foods to use GMO-free ingredients in their store-brand items. H-E-B responded that the FDA said GM foods are safe and that it carries organic grocery and produce that are GM ingredient-free while continuing to study the GM issue.