WB01343_.gif (599 bytes) Pest icide and Environmental Update

Mainstream Organics vs. GE Foods
By MARIAN BURROS The New York Times
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
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
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.