The health-and-wellness trend is here to stay, and in tandem with this new and improved American lifestyle, a burgeoning market for fresh organic fruits and vegetables has taken hold. Sales of organic produce continue to grow at a double-digit clip, with no sign of a slowdown.
According to the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) 2015 Organic Industry Survey, in 2014 the organic fruit and vegetable market remained the No. 1 category in organic food, growing by 12 percent to just more than $13 billion in sales.
Organics now account for 12 percent of the fruits and vegetables sold in the United States, with the produce department at the heart of the action. According to Washington, D.C.-based OTA, fresh organic produce accounted for 91 percent of organic fruit and vegetable sales in 2014.
“Our data suggest that consumers are always increasingly looking for healthier foods as part of the overall shift to wellness,” says OTA CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha. “Our surveys also show that consumers increasingly associate the foods they eat with overall health and wellness.”
Batcha believes that this connection between food and health is why the produce category has always been — and remains — the largest organic market. Organic produce now accounts for nearly 40 percent of the entire organic sector.
As to why the organic foothold is deeper in fresh produce than other categories, Batcha says: “The consumer makes the connection to the farm when they buy a whole fruit or vegetable. Sometimes they forget, if it’s a cracker or even a beverage, but when they’re eating a fresh fruit or vegetable, there’s no mistaking the source, and they consider the impact of their choice.”
Increased availability and accessibility are further fueling sales of organic produce.
“There’s widespread opportunity to be a participant in organic produce, from natural grocers to mainstream supermarkets to big-box stores to farmers’ markets,” she observes. “In addition, the competitive pricing of items like organic carrots, spinach and apples in some of these stores make organic produce very accessible to the consumer.”
Innovative suppliers of organic produce also play a critical role in driving demand. “Many of the hottest trends in produce originated in organic and went on to have a huge impact on produce as a whole,” asserts Batcha, pointing to current super-sellers like kale, bagged salads and dark leafy greens. “Over half of the U.S. kale market is organic,” she notes. “Kale was organic before it was hot in the mainstream.”
The Organic Shopper
Who is the organic shopper? The answer, while ever-evolving, is contained in some of the most interesting data to emerge from OTA’s surveys, according to Batcha.
“Every year, the organic consumer is becoming more diverse in terms of age, income and background,” she explains. “The organic consumer very closely mirrors the current trends for the U.S. The number of Hispanic households shopping organic is up to 16 percent, from just 7 percent four years ago. There’s also been a strong increase in African-American consumers choosing organics — doubling over the last few years.
“The organic buyer is stronger in both diversity and Millennial participation, which really bodes well for the industry,” adds Batcha. “It’s where we are now, and where we are going.”
Batcha predicts that we’ll also see more home delivery of organic fruits, vegetables and produce as a whole in the coming years. “Organic home-cooking kits, whether delivered or picked up at the store, are a business opportunity for organics,” she says.
Leading Categories and Up-and-comers
While sales of organics continue to grow throughout the store, the recently released “FreshFacts on Retail Q3 2015,” from the United Fresh Produce Association and Nielsen Perishables Group, notes that “organic fruits and vegetables experienced particularly rapid growth, increasing dollar sales 15.9 percent vs. Q3 2014.”
Consumers are becoming spoiled for choice, with FreshFacts reporting a 19 percent increase in the number of organic produce items carried in stores in 2015. What’s more, despite the higher price points (often 50 percent higher than conventional counterparts), all top organic commodities increased dollar and volume sales versus the same period last year, according to the report.
Organic shoppers love their greens. Packaged salads are the No. 1-selling item among organic commodities, and lettuce also makes FreshFacts’ top-10 list for Q3. According to OTA, 25 percent of the market for packaged salads is organic.
“While produce overall has the deepest organic penetration of other food categories, greens/salads has an even deeper organic penetration,” says Samantha Cabaluna, managing director for Earthbound Farm brand communications. “I think you can attribute that to the simple fact of accessibility. Nearly every supermarket carries organic greens, and the price premium is very small — 10 percent to 20 percent — in comparison to the premiums in other categories.”
The largest organic produce brand in the country, Earthbound Farm, part of the WhiteWave Foods Co., continues to innovate with greens. The San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based company recently introduced a Flavor Blends line that includes Spicy Spinach and Sweet Kale varieties, each with a distinct flavor profile designed to create on-trend excitement.
“Gone are the days when Italian flavors were the height of exotic tastes, and spice was reserved for Mexican food,” affirms Cabaluna. “Today, flavors from far-flung corners of the globe are popular. Chefs and foodies are gravitating toward smoke, hot spice and fermented flavors to name a few, and they’re mixing ethnic food traditions to invent surprising new flavor experiences.”
Making the Q3 2015 list at No. 7, apples are among the top-10 organic commodities continuing to increase in sales and volume, according to FreshFacts.
Stemilt Growers, of Wenatchee, Wash., which recently revamped its Artisan Organics brand logo, began its organic journey in 1989, and continues to innovate each year. Today, the company is a leading producer of organic apples, pears, cherries and summer fruits, and its entire crop of peaches and nectarines is grown and certified organic.
Currently, more than 20 percent of Stemilt’s entire fruit production is organic, with many acres in a three-year transition phase to organics.
“Organics are growing right now, especially in the apple category, and Stemilt is leading that charge,” says Communications Manager Brianna Shales, who predicts the strongest growth in Stemilt’s organic Honeycrisp, Fuji, Pink Lady and Pinata apples.
In other apple news, the company has expanded its Fresh Blenders apples for juicing/blending and Lil Snappers kid-sized fruits with organic options.
“We know that parents want more organic produce for their families, and so we are responding to that demand with a complete line of 3-pound organic Lil Snappers bags,” notes Shales. “It’s a great way for retailers to promote kid-sized fruit to parents, as well as their organic category.”
Another list maker, bananas were among the top-10 organic commodities for dollar and volume sales in Q3 2015, according to FreshFacts. The largest grower and distributor of fresh organic bananas and pineapples, The Dole Food Co., in Westlake Village, Calif., sources fruit from five Latin American countries through Dole Fresh Fruit International Ltd.
“The organic category for bananas and pineapples has seen enormous growth in recent years, and continues trending high for the future,” says William Goldfield, director, corporate communications. “Dole is investing heavily in this area, with new farms and operations to meet this exploding consumer demand.
“I think the No. 1 reason for the growth is that shoppers want a choice,” Goldfield continues. “Overall, the population today is increasingly food-conscious and aware, and simply wants options in their eating.”
Retail sales of organic citrus in the United States were up 14 percent in 2015, according to Chicago-based IRI Worldwide Data.
This means that organic citrus is growing nearly three times as fast as conventional citrus, notes Joan Wickham, manager of advertising and public relations for Valencia, Calif.-based Sunkist.
“Consumers are broadening their food choices, and we’re seeing that in the growth of organics,” says Wickham. “With more acreage coming into production, Sunkist has a growing supply of organics to meet this increasing demand.”
Sunkist’s portfolio of organics includes navel, Cara Cara navel and Valencia oranges; mandarins; minneolas; grapefruit; lemons; and limes.
The organic corn shortage in the United States is due largely to the fact that 90 percent of corn in this country is bioengineered. As such, organic corn is one of the nation’s top imported foods. While the majority of organic corn is needed to produce organic processed foods and feed certified-organic livestock, consumer attention is being drawn to the category like never before.
On the fresh produce side, the Branch: A Family of Farms grower, packer and shipper of sweet corn, based in South Bay, Fla., is now offering an organic bicolor corn variety.
“Consumers are seeking more organic and natural products, and our addition of organic corn will help meet that demand as we further grow our organic offerings,” says Brett Bergmann, president of Branch. “We have been selling it initially in the Southeast, and are looking to expand further out.”
The Future of Organic
While organic acreage overall appears flat, Batcha says the one area of growth is in fresh fruits and vegetables. The majority of U.S. supply is currently produced in California, but OTA sees opportunity for expansion beyond the Golden State.
“Increasingly, other countries are looking to the U.S. as a source of organic fresh fruits and vegetables,” notes Batcha.
In the near future, the biggest challenge for organic produce will be to keep up with demand, she predicts: “Geographical diversification of the production base and innovation to manage invasive pests and diseases are going to be important issues for the industry moving forward.”
“Many of the hottest trends in produce originated in organic and went on to have a huge impact on produce as a whole.”
—Laura Batcha, Organic Trade Association
“While produce overall has the deepest organic penetration of other food categories, greens/salads has an even deeper organic penetration.”
—Samantha Cabaluna, Earthbound Farm
“The organic category for bananas and pineapples has seen enormous growth in recent years, and continues trending high for the future.”
—William Goldfield, Dole