When it comes to sales of organic food, the British are leaving the Americans in the dust. After sputtering along for years, sales there are expected to be five times as much this year as in 1996, compared with sales that doubled in this country over the same period.
Organics are mainstream in Britain, in some part because of the introduction of genetically modified ingredients from America, to which there has been widespread opposition. Anger and fear over G.M. products reached a peak last summer and has since died down, but interest in organics is stronger than ever.
Ads for organic food are found in newspapers and in supermarket magazines, particularly those of Waitrose and Sainsbury, the two chains leading the organic charge. Overhead signs in their stores direct customers to the organic sections, and the products themselves are clearly marked. That these organic products are free of genetically modified ingredients is occasionally emblazoned on the packages as well.
And unlike the United States, where the bulk of organic sales are in natural-food stores, 70 to 80 percent of the sales in England are in conventional supermarkets. Sainsbury has about 440 stores, and Waitrose has more than 120. Other supermarket chains are also making a point of stocking organic ingredients, but not with quite the same fervor.
A number of factors account for the differences between the two countries. The simple answer is a series of food scares there that have made consumers uneasy. "We have lived in a culture of food scares," said Alan Wilson, an agronomist and organic food consultant for Waitrose, citing organophosphates in carrots, salmonella in eggs and B.S.E. in cattle.
The latter refers to mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which destroys the brain. For several years, the British government insisted that it could not be passed from cattle to humans. Then, in 1997, the government acknowledged that B.S.E. could be transmitted. The admission was followed by the appearance of genetically modified foods, and for Britons that apparently was the last straw.
Mr. Wilson said the furor last year over genetically modified foods occurred because "it threatened to take away choice from British consumers."
He continued: "Any science that comes to market has to benefit consumers, and the presentation of G.M. foods here was very, very poor. So G.M. was just another gift to the organic movement," helping to speed up its popularity. As in the United States, organic means free of genetically modified ingredients.
Despite food scares in the United States -- salmonella in chickens and eggs, listeria in ready-to-eat meats and E. coli O157:H7 in a number of products -- Americans appear to trust government food safety agencies more than the British do.
Craig Sams, an American who is founder and president of Whole Earth Foods in England and lives there but travels often to the United States, said there were three fundamental differences between attitudes here and there: regulations, the press and the English connectedness to the countryside.
He could have added vegetarianism. For generations, meatless diets have had a much higher profile in England than in this country, where few even knew what vegetarians were until the 1960's.
The United States has no national organic standards, Mr. Sams said, which "undermines the market and deters big companies from going in." When the European Union's organic regulations went into effect in 1993, it improved credibility, he said, "because everyone knew what organic meant."
In England, the press has been very supportive of organics, Mr. Sams said. Food writers there are continually exposed to information from the Soil Association, which is a nationwide organic certifier and has as much clout as all of this country's organic institutions combined.
And finally, Mr. Sams believes that the British are more connected to their environment. "The English love to go for long rambling walks in the countryside," he said. "You don't do that in the States, so you don't have the same sense of the country."
Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., the country's largest organic organization, agreed with Mr. Sams's assessment. In addition, she said, supermarkets have not been around as long as they have in the United States, and so the "British still feel the loss of the neighborhood green grocer, the butcher, the baker," Ms. DiMatteo said.
"You can see how people would be very emotional about their food supply, and organic seems to answer these kinds of emotional concerns and issues," she added.
The deep involvement of Prince Charles in organics and genetic engineering issues has also not been lost on his subjects, she said, and he has developed a line of organic foods under the Duchy label.
Finally, because of Britain's size, trends spread more rapidly there. "Even if you wanted to buy organic in many parts of this country," Ms. DiMatteo said, "you wouldn't be able to except on the West and East Coasts, the upper Midwest and the Southeast."
On my visit to London in May, I was coming out of the underground when I was confronted by a front-page headline in The Daily Mail. It warned, "Organic Mushrooms Were Contaminated With Deadly Bacteria."
Not until the fifth paragraph did the reader learn that the headline was false, that the E. coli found in the mushrooms was not E. coli 0157:H7, which is deadly, but the generic variety, which is not. No sources were cited for the findings. Only one of Britain's many newspapers repeated any part of the story.
These weren't the first false charges. Last year, according to The Guardian, the "agri-industrial food establishment" mounted "an ill-informed and unjustified smear campaign" that tried to link organic food to the hazardous form of E. coli.
The thriving organic movement in Britain must have agribusiness and the biotech industry worried.
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Last Updated on 6/22/00
By Dan Ellis