ORGANIC FOOD STANDARD HIGHLIGHTS APRIL FESTIVAL

NEW YORK -- The promise of a national standard for organic food products is on the minds of all natural foods and mainstream retailers as they launch promotions and activities in conjunction with April's Organic Food Festival.The educational campaign -- created last year by the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass. and Organic Alliance, St. Paul, Minn. -- has attracted more than 300 supermarkets

NEW YORK -- The promise of a national standard for organic food products is on the minds of all natural foods and mainstream retailers as they launch promotions and activities in conjunction with April's Organic Food Festival.

The educational campaign -- created last year by the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass. and Organic Alliance, St. Paul, Minn. -- has attracted more than 300 supermarkets and two dozen certified organic manufacturers. It was first held last September as the Organic Food Celebration, but moved to April this year to coincide with Earth Day, April 22.

"This promotion will offer food retailers the vehicle to promote their primary commodity -- food, specifically, organic food -- under the Earth Day umbrella," said Angela Sterns, OA's executive director (see related story, Page 45).

The goal of this year's campaign includes increasing mainstream consumer awareness of organic foods in all fresh-foods categories, including produce, dairy and meat. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, unveiled the revised national standard on March 7th, it included a permanent provision allowing the word "organic" to appear on meat, poultry and certain dairy products. Until interim measures were introduced early last year, federal regulations prohibited such use.

According to organizers, the festival will include only products that contain 95% to 100% certified organic ingredients.

While several retailers contacted by SN are reluctant to comment on the updated standards until they're officially finalized, Jim Lee, president of Wild Oats, Boulder, Colo., said he is quite optimistic about what the future holds in general for the organic foods category.

"Ultimately, [the new standard] will work out very well, I have no doubt," he said.

Releasing the updated standards could not have come at a better time, just weeks before the festival's kick-off. New to the promotion this year is an emphasis on reaching young people through the availability of an "Organic Activity Book" for 9-12 year olds. The book is part of the campaign's retail promotion kit, which also includes table-top displays, buttons, coupons, point-of-sale materials and shelf danglers to identify certified organic products; in-store advertisements in the form of an educational magazine with coupons; demo kits of brochures, talking points and fact signs; and training kits for store-level associates.

Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., plans on utilizing the festival to introduce consumers to many of its new "Natural Choice" products, said Becca Anderson, public relations manager for the chain. Included in the natural line of products are various types of perishables such as milk, eggs, cheese, and soy products, as well as some organic frozen entrees and vegetables, meat substitutes, frozen novelties and fresh breads, according to Anderson.

"We plan on doing some heavy sampling of our natural products [at the festival]," she said. "Since consumers have been somewhat reluctant in the past, we hope we can start to bring them around."

The Organic Food Festival will also provide Bashas' an opportunity to work with local media and organizations to promote organic products throughout the coming weeks, Anderson said, including introducing the educational materials to local Boy Scout troops in an attempt to get younger consumers involved.

Bashas' has been promoting the festival within its store for several weeks through various signage and literature. According to Anderson, an in-store Natural Choice newsletter has been available to both consumers and employees that contains details about the festival, such as time, location and purpose. At the rear of the Natural Choice department is a small end cap with point-of-purchase materials and literature about the festival and the products that will be highlighted, and all Natural Choice items to be featured at the festival are displayed in-store along with shelf talkers to keep consumers aware of their participation, she added.

In discussing the larger issue of the revised rules, Anderson agreed that it remains to be seen how the new rules will impact the marketplace, and how retailers will adapt their merchandising strategies to reflect the changes. She added that since most consumers are unaware of the proposed standard at this point, April's Organic Food Festival probably won't see much of a publicity surge outside of those already knowledgeable about the foods. Still, such activities in the near future may benefit substantially once the standard reaches more of the public.

Wild Oats' Lee noted that the biggest benefit of the revised rules is the consistency that was missing from the former standards, comprised of various, diverse sources, such as state certifying agencies and the organic industry itself. The result was a hodgepodge of rules that could be confusing, especially for multistate supermarket companies. The latest proposal sets a nationally recognized definition for the term "organic" in each category. "A single national organic standard, backed by consistent and accurate labeling, will greatly reduce consumer confusion," said Dan Glickman, Agriculture Secretary, during the announcement of the new rule.

Lee made it clear that most retailers have had demand for organic food in the past, but the new standard may be the final push to put the market over the hill.

"The appeal of the organic label was always there, and now that people will know exactly what it means, I think we'll definitely see a noticeable boost in sales," he said.

Wild Oats, one of the nation's largest natural and organic foods chains, intends to actively promote and advertise the additional organic offerings soon to grace its shelves. The new rules will help increase consumer knowledge, and therefore, acceptance, of the procedures used in organic processing, as well as the integrity of the finished products themselves, according to Lee.

Though WIld Oats was not approached about the Organic Food Festival, and technically will not be participating, Lee said that his company is, and always will be, a strong supporter of anything the industry develops toward the continuation of its success.

"We'll promote the organic aspect of our products, of course," said Lee. "Consumers know what they want, but we'll make sure they're aware of the new regulations and build their confidence so that the standard really serves its purpose.

"It's tough to know exactly what will happen before everything gets finalized and we can assess what the next step is. But until then, we can prepare for a boom, I would say that is for sure," he added.