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Popularity of Organic Food is Growing in US

The organic food industry continues to grow in the United States. Organic products have moved beyond specialty stores and farmers markets into national grocery chains and discount retailers as consumers demand increases.

Organic food products generate $14.5 billion in annual sales in the United States. That represents two percent of total food and beverage sales.

David Gagnon, with the Organic Trade Association says, "The organic food industry has seen a lot of growth over the years. Since 1990 it's been growing at about 20 percent per year. And according to the organic trade association's manufacturers' market survey, we're estimating we're going to see an 18 percent growth per year up to the year 2008."

Mr. Gagnon says the figures are higher for organic meat and poultry, which have experienced a 30 percent increase in sales.

Fears of diseases such as mad cow, concerns about heavy use of antibiotics in food animals and worries about genetic engineering are some of the reasons for that increase.

Mr. Gagnon says Americans are the largest consumers of organic products, followed by Europeans, Australians and the Japanese.

Less than half of one percent of American agriculture production is certified to be organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA organic seal alerts consumers that the product is at least 95 percent organic -- grown without pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones or genetic engineering. The remaining 5 percent of the ingredients are non-organic or synthetic, and include baking powder, pectin to make yogurt thicker, or carbon dioxide to keep products, like cottage cheese, fresher longer.

Organic farmers, such as Harriet Behar from the midwestern state of Wisconsin, say the USDA organic seal is vital to the organic industry.

"We've worked really hard to have organic have a really strong meaning and we want to retain that meaning."

Forty four percent of total organic food sales last year were handled by supermarkets and grocery stores.

Mr. Gagnon says the higher price of organic products does not seem to hurt sales. “Organic food really represents the true cost of that food product. It usually takes more labor, for instance, to produce organic food without those chemical and toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. The other thing we're seeing as more and more production is moving into organic agriculture and more and more processors are, is that the gap between organic and conventional food products is actually shrinking. "

Mr. Gagnon says the recent visit by Britain's Prince Charles to an organic market in California heightened interest in organic products.

"I think there's a real consciousness among people to use products they feel are better for them and better for the environment and I think that's what we're seeing with this trend."

Organic farming is practiced in approximately 100 countries with more than 25 million hectares under organic management. As one industry specialist recently noted, "Organic is a very profitable niche."