Organic production in the UK is showing a steep increase after a slow start that was mainly due to a previous lack of government funding and support (Stolton 1998). The consumption of organic products was already on the rise. As early as the mid-1980s organic foods became available in supermarkets and these have been a dominant force ever since, representing a share of around 70% of sales (see Comber 1998; O'Hara 2000). Recent food scares and the debate about genetically modified organisms have stimulated the market (Comber 1998).
The first supermarket to introduce organic foods was Safeway in 1981, and by 1990 the 'big five' - Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose - were all stocking them (Comber 1998). The major supermarket chains all developed their own strategies to market organic products. Tesco, for example, offers organic produce at the same price as conventional lines, and is financially supporting a newly created organic agriculture research centre at Aberdeen University (Organic Food News UK, 29 September 1998). Furthermore, it works with The Soil Association, a certification organisation, to help develop the organic produce sector, and actively encourages farmers to move into organic growing. Tesco now offers more than 700 organic products (Norton 2000).
It is Waitrose's strategy to replace conventional produce with organic produce wherever possible. Waitrose offers the largest range with more than 1000 products (Norton 2000). Asda now offers more than 400 organic products and is going to invest heavily in a new range of organic products (Norton 2000). Sainsbury's is presently the retailer with the highest organic market share, notably 2.5% of its general sales (Haest 2000). The company has put a strong emphasis on the development of its organic own label. Sainsbury's introduced a range of initiatives to encourage the development of the organic market; for example it established SOURCE, the Sainsbury's organic resourcing club which works together with the Soil Association to find new organic suppliers, and recently Sainsbury's announced a labelling scheme for products in the process of conversion, which will display the phrase 'produced under conversion to organic farming'.
Iceland, which specialises in frozen foods, occupies a special place in the British retailer landscape, although it only has a market share of less than 2% (Marsden et al. 2000). Iceland has become well-known for its pioneering stance on food issues, by which it tries and defines its place in the market (see Marsden et al. 2000). One of its previous initiatives was to guarantee that no Iceland own-brand product manufactured after the date of 1 May 1998 would contain any genetically modified ingredients. A later initiative implied a complete switch to products from organic origin, starting with its own-label frozen vegetables, and other conventional foods following soon after. Iceland took the decision to charge no premium for organic products, and to offer them at a similar price as that for non-organic ones. To reach that goal, the company planned to invest £8 million by way of reduced profit margins (http:// www.iceland.co.uk, 20 June 2000). Initially Iceland claimed it had secured contracts to buy in almost 40% of the produce grown organically world-wide (Agrarisch Dagblad, 16 June 2000). At a later stage, however, the company had to admit that its plans had been too ambitious and that expectations had to be adjusted to a lower level.
The large English supermarket chains also made progress with ICM programmes. The National Farmers Union (NFU) formed a partnership with a group of large retailers (ASDA, CWS, Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer, Safeway, Somerfield and Waitrose) which aimed to establish a scheme based upon ICM principles for fresh fruits and vegetables of English origin. This so-called Assured Produce initiative, which started in 1991, seeks to achieve its objectives in three phases:
(1) to establish for each crop a baseline of current best horticultural practice;
(2) to verify independently that growers are reaching their standards; and
(3) to lift these standards measurably.
Initially the crop-specific protocols described existing best agricultural practice, but it was the intention to update them annually following a formal review of new developments. The first protocols were published in July 1993. In addition to the Assured Produce protocol, participating retailers may wish to adopt extra or higher standards. Tesco, for example, had already initiated its own programme ('Nature's Choice') prior to the formation of the partnership between the NFU and the large retailers, and has continued its development.
The British retailers participating in the Assured Produce scheme have subsequently taken the lead in a Europe-wide initiative with the aim of imposing similar standards on overseas suppliers. It is a noticeable fact that the resulting EUREPGAP
protocol has given British farmers' organisations cause to deliver a complaint to the European Commission against the Assured Produce scheme. They claimed to face requirements that are stricter than those for non-UK farmers. The organisations would favour the Assured Produce scheme being adjusted to the level of the less demanding EUREP scheme. It seems now that the objections about the Assured Produce scheme have been taken away, as the chairman of Assured Produce officially declared that 'Assured Produce is benchmarking itself against the EUREPGAP framework so that UK growers and consumers can benefit from a level playing field in relation to competition from abroad' (press communication, Assured Produce, 9 July 2001).
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