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What Does 'Organic' Mean Today?

What does 'Organic' mean today? Such a question could take up a whole day of seminars and roundtable discussions. And indeed, that is just what most of the day, at least, was spent discussing here at the Organic Summit, co-located with Natural Products Expo East. The question for the folks in the room (CEOs, top-line distributors and other principal organic stakeholders) is really a multi-faceted query, since they are the ones creating organic products.

Consumers, on the other hand, have unfortunately boiled down the term to mean any number of things that are important to them. A recent survey in the United Kingdom elicited responses like "healthy", "weight loss", and "free from additives" ... as well as the dreaded "expensive."

For better or worse, all of these responses might be components of the organic movement, but the reality is far more complex — and that's been the challenge for producers trying to maintain product differentiation in a field increasingly dominated by claims like gluten-free, all-natural, local and fair trade, to name but a few. Any and all of these products could also be organic, but not all organic products support these other claims. You begin to get the picture.

The panel discussion hosted by this editor took considered the question head on. Lynn Dornblaser, head of CPG insight at Mintel, noted that many of the new products introduced in the United States, North America and around the world this past year seemed to include attributes in addition to organic. She called it "Organic Plus." The question is, is that such a bad thing? Can organic be subsumed into the larger whole health portfolio of products without losing sales or identity?

Kevin Williams, principal brand strategist at Pure Brands LLC, pointed out two emerging trends that could give organic a new chance to promote its unique attributes. One is what he called "Toxic Anxiety", the growing awareness of food safety-related issues, pesticides and additives that caused so much anxiety lately. The other is "Local Warming": People may not be able to identify with, or envision, a huge ice mass calving from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, but they will respond to the effects of weather events where they live — an extended heat wave or autumn blizzard. That scares them, and in turn, is more influential in changing their thinking, and buying, patterns.

There probably isn't a pat answer to this question, but one thing is certain. Deciding what organic means for the people working in the industry is not just a marketing issue.