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Organic Trade Association
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All Things Organic: A trade show with right ingredients
By Michael Braunstein for The Reader

Munching on an apple as I stood in the Grand Atrium of Chicago's McCormick Place. I marveled at the magnitude. As a convention site, McCormick dwarfs most halls: it consists of three separate buildings that straddle eight lanes of Lake Shore Drive along the shore of Lake Michigan. When I was visiting; five trade shows were going on there - at once.

 

In the three-tier Lakeside building was the Annual Catalog Conference, the largest direct-mail marketing event of the-year in the world. But across the skyway that spans the LSD Freeway, in the North and South buildings, was a convention filling six levels of those two halls, each large enough to conceal Omaha's Qwest Center.


The annual Food Marketing Institute (F.MI) Convention and Educational Exposition combing four trade groups, one of which was the Organic Trade Association's {OTA) conference, titled All Things Organic. This year's ATO expo featured three days of workshops, presentations and exhibition booths, representing over 450 purveyors of organic foods and other items. Longtime big-name players such as Hain and Horizon offered huge booths next to family-owned companies like Mary's Gone Crackers and Eco Lips. The primary directive was everything offered, everything displayed, was organic.


This FMI convention is big. So big that it warranted a letter of welcome from George W. himself in the 296-page general program. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley used a full page in the Tribune to welcome the conventioneers. The conference uses facilities from 32 different Chicago hotels for guest and convention services. Imagine! A convention this size and no casino in sight! How ever do they do that?


Although OTA was only one of the four conferences under the FMI umbrella this year, make no mistake about it - organic was the buzz. In fact, the OTA program itself was nearly 200 pages.


The buzz is because organic products are the fastest growing segment of the food industry. OTA has figured that sales of organic foods were approximately $10.38 billion in 2003. That is a sales jump of over 20 percent from 2002. Since 1997 organic food sales have averaged 20 percent annual growth, while total U.S. food sales increased only about 3 percent.


You are what you eat
Growing consumer interest in organic food is based on three public perceptions. Organic food is viewed as more healthful, tastier and more environmentally friendly than conventional. An FMI and Prevention magazine report found that 61 percent of Americans believe that pure, pesticide-free, all-natural food can serve as preventive medicine and help cure illnesses.


Another explanation for growing public interest is the USDA National Organic Program's clarification and certification process that went into effect in October 2001. Now there is a national awareness of organic and a federal stipulation of what that means. Consumers have one singular definition provided by the US DA and a clear slicker or logo that identifies items meeting the criteria.


On the exhibition floor of the OTA show, most booths were manned by individuals who were intimately connected with the products they were promoting. Organic is a personal mission to many of them. Though big business and generating multibillions of dollars, organic is still mission-driven just as it was in the beginning of the movement. Many of the companies at the convention were small companies with big ideals.


The philosophies of earth-friendly and sustainable production methods are as important to organic producers as the end product or bottom line. But it's important to realize idealism and profitability are not mutually exclusive. One of the conference keynote speakers touched on this point.


Taste, legacy and profit can coexist
Monday morning's all-organic continental breakfast was punctuated by an address by Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayliss. Owner and chef of one of America's most prestigious and successful restaurants, Topolobampo and the adjacent Frontera Grill, Bayliss is also a cookbook author and PBS cooking show star. He also produces a line of organic salsa and chips.


Bayliss pointed out that he didn't get into organic food because of some "new-agey, life changing, near-death experience or anything like that."


"I'm an entrepreneur first. 1 chose organic produce because it tastes better and I'm in business to make a business work," Bayliss admitted.


That said, he noted that his use of local fanners for produce supply is good business sense but also does give back to the earth. It's just good practice to take care of the supplier of the food you need to make your business better. His restaurant spent half a million dollars on local fresh produce just last year.


Bayliss continued, "I admit the local is primary to us at our restaurant. Then comes organic. And now we are supporting local farmers in making the transition from conventional to organic. It just tastes better."


Tuesday's keynote speaker had a different story. As a cancer survivor and ecologist, 'Dr. Sandra Steingraber explained why organic, pesticide-free food is an important part of prenatal care. Children are particularly vulnerable to pollutants and may benefit most from organic food choices.


You are what you wear too
Most people equate the organic label with a description of what we put in our mouth. But there are many ways that harmful chemicals can get into the body. (Ever hear of smoking? Or air pollution?)
Organic production standards hold true for clothing, personal care products, household cleaners, pet foods, nutritional supplements, (lowers and other nonfood items. That segment of the organic industry is growing by 20 percent annually.


A highlight of the Tuesday proceedings was the Wear Organic!(tm) fashion show featuring a two-hour romp on the runway displaying fashions fully fabricated with organic fiber and materials. Cotton, wool, linen and hemp are natural fibers that can be produced adhering to organic standards. What that means is that the caustic forming and sizing chemicals and dyes found in conventional clothing items is eliminated.


Nike, one of the world's biggest names in sport apparel, sponsored the show for the second year. Nike is committed to using organic fiber in a percentage of clothing products.


2-percent solution
Nonfood organic products totaled $440 million in sales in 2003. That brings all organic products to $10.8 billion for the year. Those numbers sound huge and they are important, but there is a long way to go. Organic food sales represent only about 2 percent of the total amount of dollars spent on food in the United States. Expanding that number would be good news for the consumer and the planet.
 
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