Eating with conscience

A Dubai-based businessman is on a mission to introduce the concept of organic food to regional consumers.

  • E-Mail
By  Robbie Greenfield Published  May 9, 2005

|~||~||~|Organic food has become somewhat of a craze in Europe and America during the past few years. Appealing to the health and environmentally conscious, the pricier, ‘natural’ alternative to mass-produced, genetically modified foodstuffs is a kind of status symbol in its own right. As the healthy eating debate begins to pick up steam in the GCC, the opening of the UAE’s first organic food store in Jumeirah, Dubai, the aptly named Organic Foods & Café, appears a timely one. A result of a calculated, premeditated examination of a yawning gap in the market, perhaps? “To be honest, I had no idea there was a market for us here,” says storeowner Nils El Accad. “I just wanted to do something different, buck the trend.” By its very nature, organics is more of a calling than a business pursuit, and to this end, Organic Foods & Café is the antithesis of the multinational supermarket chain. For all its perceived trendiness, the global market for products grown without the use of unnatural agents, fertilisers or hormones remains a niche one. Even in Germany, Europe’s top organic food market, its share is modest at around 8%. In the UK, despite concerted interest from higher-end chains like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, organics remain under 4% of sales. Hardly an invasion, and as El Accad dryly notes, “even if my store grows the organic market in the Middle East by 500%, that is still 500% of practically nothing. We are talking about very small numbers here.” Customers to Organic Foods & Café are in a sense making as much a lifestyle choice as a dietary one. At 10,000 square feet, the interior is spacious, attractively laid out and bolstered by soft furnishings — wooden shelves and plant decorations give the store a uniquely environmental feel that is in keeping with its message. Adjacent to the aisles is a café offering a similar theme. Organics simply doesn’t fit in with the ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ mentality favoured by multinational hypermarkets. In a retail environment dominated by Wal-Marts and Carrefours, consumers have become accustomed to paying rock bottom prices for their food. Every step involved in the production of organic food is more labour-intensive, time-consuming and costly. “Our store doesn’t exist to make profit,” asserts El Accad. “Every cent we make gets ploughed straight back in.” This small-scale approach allows for a more intimate relationship with suppliers, which helps to ensure better quality of produce, he adds. Contrast that with the big supermarkets, which are taking considerable flack for bullying suppliers and forcing them to drive down prices. “Our goal is to help those who have the same values as we do,” comments El Accad. “I know each one of my suppliers and have visited their farms and I pay them a fair price. I automatically pay about 25% more than multinationals, but the relationship I have with them is totally different.” From fresh fruit, meat and dairy, to bread, jams and breakfast cereals, Organic Foods & Café can meet all a consumer’s weekly grocery shopping needs, and you won’t find a genetically modified product in sight. Nor are any artificial flavourings, colourings, preservatives, or fertilisers allowed near the food. Even the store’s fish come from sustainable fisheries outside the Gulf, which has high levels of pollution. All well and good, but what does buying an organic product really mean for the consumer? The concept is attractive, but many consumers remain unclear as to what organic really means. El Accad highlights orange juice as an example of the differences you might expect between regular produce and organic. “When you buy a regular juice brand, even if it says 100% juice, this can mean several different things,” he says. “In reality, perhaps only 5% is orange juice. The biggest ingredient is reconstituted apple or grape juice. Grape is popular as a waste product from wine production. The juice is clarified and deflavourised, and to it is added orange concentrate and an artificial preservative. Believe me, you can hide anything in a label. When you buy orange juice from Organic, you get 100% natural orange juice, no concentrate and no additional flavours, preservatives or colouring. That is the difference.” Organic food is essentially a throwback to the past: unaltered, natural, nutritious food the way it was before technology and mass production flooded the food chain with hundreds of chemicals. The attraction is clear, but for large retailers, organic produce presents a puzzling business conundrum. “The tendency of multinationals is to look at a product, buy it in bulk and go 10% cheaper than the competitor. Well you can’t do that with organics, because they are not conducive to regular cost-cutting exercises,” El Accad insists. “The moment you compromise on quality, you risk everything that organic food stands for in this industry, and my fear is that multinationals could destroy those foundations by slashing prices and going mass-market.” In the GCC, organic food is just about starting to appear on the food radar. “Currently awareness in the Middle East about organic food and drink is only just starting to pick up,” says Ruby Maalouf, vice president of Rubicana Impex, a Canadian agency handling North American producers of organic food and supplements. “There is a lot of work being done by governments here to spread the message, and there is a great deal of interest from the public especially after the constant food contamination scandals. Those who can afford it would surely take the healthier option,” she adds. The question on retailers’ lips now will be: How to proceed with the concept? “Organics is a niche market. In emerging markets like the Middle East they represent less than 0.5% of total food sales. Organics will never become mainstream in that sense, but I believe retailers can take a positive step and start stocking a limited range of items. There is always that sense that with organics, you are giving something back to the environment,” El Accad says. Organic Foods & Café stocks two product ranges in particular that El Accad is seeking to distribute to retailers: Nature’s Path breakfast cereals and Watania jams. Cereals constitute the best category for organic introduction into the regular food chain, since there is hardly any disparity in price and the products are non-perishable. Nature’s Path’s range is wheat free, gluten free and low in fat and available in a range of varieties including corn flakes, puffs, muesli, EnviroKidz shapes and Eco Pacs. “We’re trying to make food products that are organically grown and produced so delicious and well packaged that they appeal to everyone; and in doing so, increase the acreage cultivated by organic farmers,” says Arran Stephens, founder and president of Nature’s Path Foods. The cereal, maintains El Accad, will provide a perfect starting block for retailers to begin stocking organic produce. “Consumers don’t buy organic for what’s in it, rather for what’s not in it. That is the beauty of this concept,” says El Accad. So how can retailers be kind to the environment whilst continuing to chalk up profits? By looking at organics as part of their overall customer offering, according to El Accad. “Organics is a wonderful niche, but it will remain a niche. With organic food, retailers have an opportunity to make a difference whilst providing viable, nutritious and natural alternatives to their customers,” he says. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code