"Consumers are aware of the benefits of organic food".
Marcus Wewer is successfully committed to more and more Naturland and organic food on the shelves of Rewe (a large German supermarket chain). Consumer advocate Armin Valet critically observes the range of goods in the food retail trade. Naturland interviewed both of them about how they and their clientele feel about organic food in the light of current developments.
Naturland: What role does organic food play today in your advisory services or on your supermarket shelves? And to what extent has consumer behaviour changed with regard to organic food due to the current crises?
Armin Valet: Organic food is part of our advisory services. Consumers always have questions about it, often critical ones. Organic food has a good image with many consumers, but in the crisis, these foods are also under close examination. What we hear is that many people don't want to go without organic food, but are already looking where they can get it as cheap as possible.
Marcus Wewer: Organic products are still a growing market. The issues of climate, soil and water conservation, biodiversity, pesticide residues and animal welfare continue to be high on society's agenda.New additions are questions of food sovereignty, dependence on imports, world nutrition and, of course, the immense energy demand for synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. These are all issues to which organic has the better answers. After the uncertainty caused by war and inflation in spring, conscious organic shopping has again established itself after the summer holidays.
Nevertheless, it is also noticeable that consumers are looking for cheaper organic alternatives. Within the organic segment, our private label REWE Bio is growing particularly well. Of course, we are pleased about this and it strengthens our commitment to further develop this brand.
Naturland: And what are the most frequent questions that consumers or your customers ask you about organic food?
Marcus Wewer: Questions about organic quality, origin, packaging and the separation of organic and non-organic products are the main focus of enquiries. In addition, there are sometimes very specific questions on topics that are currently circulating in the media. In the case of questions about organic quality, we notice an increased attention to products from the organic farmer´s associations. Possibly these are new REWE customers who were already organic buyers. They question the organic standard and also why certain REWE organic products have the Naturland label on them and some do not. This is often accompanied by the question of origin and regionality. Why, for example, is an organic pineapple organic when it comes from Ecuador?
When it comes to packaging, the classic question is whether it makes sense to have two organic schnitzels in self-service packaging and why we don't stock organic meat in the service counter. Then it is interesting to see how we, as a full-range retailer with organic and non-organic food, manage the separation of goods in purchasing, in disposition and in the market display. The more specific questions are, for example, about calf rearing in dairy cows - the keyword being mother-bound calf rearing - or ethylene in organic carob flour.
Armin Valet: Many consumers know about the advantages of organic food. As a rule, these customers do not ask us about them. Logically, we are more likely to receive critical questions: Why is the organic product packaged in so much plastic? How can frozen broccoli from Ecuador be organic?
Naturland: Organic farming has stepped up for a more sustainable and honest form of food production and processing. How do you and your clientele perceive the role of organic farmers and their organic associations?
Armin Valet: Many consumers perceive this to be the case. However, this also increases the demands on food and communication. Consumers have very high expectations and are sometimes disappointed when these expectations are not met. That is why we believe that it is mainly the farmers' associations that have the responsibility to clearly and pro-actively name and explain the interrelationships on this issue.
Marcus Wewer: Our customers expect organic quality that is of a consistently high standard. This starts in agriculture. Naturland farms are 100% converted to organic farming, not only in Germany. This is a very important factor in customer communication. We are very pleased that classic producers from the organic sector produce our REWE Bio private label. We are even more pleased when they also proudly state their company name and do not set up a sales company for it.
Naturland: Does your clientele distinguish between EU-organic and farmers association organic? And what role do the organic farmers associations play for you?
Marcus Wewer: REWE Bio with Naturland is an important co-branding. Our customers pay attention to this, as already shown in the answer to the consumers' questions. Naturland ensures a high level of quality, our customers have learned that. Especially for organic animal products, where the origin is particularly important, we score points with Naturland. The organic farmers associations are essential for the further development of organic agriculture in Germany!
Armin Valet: Yes, we inform consumers over and over again about the differences between the requirements of EU organic and organic from farmers associations. This varies. There are many consumers who are very well informed, who know the details and even know the differences between EU organic and organic from farmers associations. Many others, however, do not, because for them, organic is organic.
Naturland: Energy crisis, delivery shortages and rising prices everywhere. What development do you see for organic? Will organic play a bigger role in discounters in the future?
Armin Valet: Organic was already very important for discounters before the crisis, and we assume that their share of organic trade will increase even more during the crisis. But it is also important that organic specialist shops continue to exist and that there is a balance. Unfortunately, we see a negative trend here during the crisis, organic shops are obviously losing customers. But the organic shops around the corner are important: they contribute to diversity and have important aspects in favour of organic more clearly in focus, e.g. supporting small regional suppliers. So they really do offer advantages over organic products from discounters. But these also have their price.
Marcus Wewer: For the future of the organic market, it will be crucial that it clearly demonstrates its benefits in terms of climate, energy efficiency, regionality, biodiversity, animal welfare and many other arguments. It is the task of the German government to promote the goal of 30 percent organic farming broadly and intensively. But the organic farming associations must not neglect public relations activities and consumer education. All forms of marketing will grow: specialised trade, farm-gate sales, food retailing, drugstores and discount stores. Each trade format must know its strengths, use them and win customers for itself.
Naturland: Are there any goals that you want to achieve with regard to organic food in the next few years?
Armin Valet: More like topics that are indirectly related to organic: Sustainability, but also the new genetic engineering, where we see a great need for information. Genetic engineering must not be allowed to end up in the supermarket through the back door by suddenly softening the labelling requirements.
Marcus Wewer: REWE wants to take a leading role in the sale of organic products in Germany and thus also take responsibility for the development of organic agriculture.
Naturland: What do you think the organic sector should or could do better in the future?
Marcus Wewer: Lead the public debate. Address the issues of climate, biodiversity and animal welfare in such a way that organic farming is the answer and the solution.
Armin Valet: Strengthening their core competences: regionality, transparency and honest communication and taking consumers and their questions seriously. That should be the focus - and not growth at all costs.
This text is a translation. No guarantee can be given for the correctness.
The interviews were conducted by Markus Pfeuffer and Ralf Alsfeld, both Naturland e.V.
Consumer advocate Armin Valet (left, source: Karin_Gerdes) and Marcus Wewer (right, source: BÖLW) from Rewe, a large German supermarket chain.