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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Attendees and speakers at the annual Natural Products Expo West show, held here over the weekend, seemed to be pondering the question of whether getting bigger is indeed better. At a time when Wal-Mart is carrying organics and Whole Foods is acquiring its biggest competitor, the organic and natural food industry is in a period of unprecedented change. The show's booming attendance of more than 47,000 provided clear evidence that the growth of organic and natural products isn't slowing down any time soon.
Saturday's keynote speaker, Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," challenged the industry to maintain its integrity while such products become more widely accepted, and consequently, more profitable. "With reform movements, the crucial point is when you know power is attainable," he said. "That's where this industry is -- on the cusp of real power. Now you have to ask yourselves, how are you going to use it?"
Schlosser noted that the origins of the organic industry weren't driven by profit margins, but instead, an "idealistic concern for land and animals," among others. "Those who lose touch with what the pioneers of this industry stood for may have to choose another line of work in the next five to 10 years," he said.
"Companies must keep to their core values," continued Schlosser. "Otherwise they may become everything they originally opposed. Companies that profess one set of values publicly, yet don't live by them privately, are in danger." He noted that a growing number of consumers are taking a more revolutionary mindset, wanting to know how food is being produced and the industry's impact on the environment.
Schlosser predicted that government might measure competitive practices in the retailing industry more closely in the near future, as well.
But, according to Schlosser, size isn't everything. "The key is how the company behaves. Big companies will face bigger scrutiny in the years to come, on issues such as labor, health care, and ethical standards."
Suppliers at Expo West were keenly conscious of the danger of looming growth pains -- yet their views differed on whether becoming more mainstream is good.
"The 'big is bad' message is dangerous," said Barney Feinblum, founder and c.e.o. of Boulder, Colo.-based Organic Vintners, during a "Meet the C.E.O." breakfast that was arranged by public relations firm The Fresh Ideas Group for members of the press. "It's remarkable what's been accomplished in this industry. The organic standards are the minimum standards, yet they're so far ahead of conventional practices. To hear people debating the subtleties [of organic standards] is absurd."
Duane Primozich, co-founder of Pixie Mate, also based in Boulder, explained the likely motives behind critics of the growth movement. "We feel a certain responsibility to keep this business going on the same path. With all the new brands and products coming up through the natural foods industry, we want to keep that [integrity] alive."
-- Jenny McTaggart