Consumer demand for healthier foods and products that show transparency from field-to-table is bustling. Earlier this year, the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA’s) 2016 Organic Industry Survey revealed that in 2015 total sales of organic products reached a new record of US$43.3 billion in the United States.  The industry added US$4.2 billion in sales, up from the US$4.0 billion affixed in 2014. For four consecutive years, organic sales have maintained double-digit growth at 10.8 percent, compared to an overall market’s growth rate of 3 percent. Currently, almost 5 percent of all food sold in the U.S. is organic.

These numbers are uplifting. Walking the packed aisles at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, and at its sister Expo East in Baltimore with record numbers of exhibitors, and observing many new young companies, and more visitors every year, it is evident that the organic category is growing. It is a sector moving out of its infancy and gaining momentum in the mainstream market.

To offer a closer observation of this dynamic growth, OTA organized an international East Coast Organic Media Tour, September 18-24. Besides OWN, participants included journalists from leading publications in France, Germany, Japan and Korea, and two awarded Executive Chefs from China. Professional photographer Mira Zaki and Korean student Jungah Lee, and intern at the OTA’s International Trade Department joined the tour, which started in Manhattan, NY and ended in Washington D.C., with stops in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Monique Marez, OTA’s Director for International Trade, and Teresa Yung, Project Manager for the Tour, prepared an outstanding agenda with visits to a full spectrum of well-selected enterprises. There were two organic business incubators, start-ups Undone Chocolates and high-quality DIY cosmetics LOLI Beauty Inc., Metawear, the first US GOTS certified organic textile plant, and the headquarters of Happy Family, the #1 U.S organic baby food Company.

The visitors learned about the different varieties and growing conditions of edible mushrooms at Phillips Mushroom Farms, the largest US marketer of this nutritious delicacy. A stop at a family farm member of Coleman Natural Foods, owned by Perdue Foods, a pioneer supplier of organic chicken and free-from antibiotics allowed to see animals enjoying more space and natural light than conventional facilities.

The group enjoyed a presentation at Rodale Institute, an experimental research farm that has been comparing organic vs. conventional production methods for over 30 years. A highlight of the agenda was Serenity Acres, a dairy farm in a picturesque setting next to Rodale Institute, run by James and Ida Burkholder, a young couple with six delightful children. The place is a portrait of a well-tended family-run farm raising different animals, even rabbits, every element in harmony with nature.

At Woodstock Farms Manufacturing, a top private label co-packer of better-for-you snacks the group had access to an SQF (Safe Quality Food) certified facility rated Level 2, an excellent rating for this rigorous system aimed to assist processing facilities to manage food safety risks and provide safe products. Woodstock Farms is a subsidiary of UNFI, the world’s largest distributor of organic products.

A tour of the organic scene in the United States would not be complete without visiting Whole Foods Market (WFM) and Trade Joe’s, the two largest retail chains for organic and sustainable foods. WFM has opened 466 stores to date, including twelve in Canada and nine in the United Kingdom. By the end of October this year, Trader Joe’s had reached 460 outlets across the U.S.

The Media Tour continued to the Organic Trade Association’s Leadership Awards Celebration on September 21st in Baltimore, the night before the opening of the Natural Products Expo East. During the reception, David Vetter, President & CEO, Grain Place Foods, Mike Fata CEO and Co-Founder of Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, and the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC) were recognized for their commitment, work and vision in furthering the goals of the organic movement.

The next morning, the group arrived at a packed Baltimore Convention Center to cover the Natural Products Expo East, co-located with BIOFACH America. We attended select sessions at All Things Organic education conference and walked the aisles to spot new trends and products and to meet exhibitors, visitors and industry Friends.

A taste of farm to table

Monique and Teresa made sure the group would not leave the United States without tasting splendid meals made with organic ingredients at excellent restaurants along the route. The first dinner was at the casual Italian trattoria Rosemary’s, known for its rooftop garden in Manhattan’s West Village, and its 40-acre farm. In Manhattan, there was also a lunch at a fast, (good) food Sweetgreen, and, a brief stop at one of the popular Juice Press outlets. Juice is one of the fastest growing categories in organic sales in the United States. Mae Mae Café in SoHo offered an intimate atmosphere, where Tina Hedges pampered everyone and allowed us to play with her beauty concoctions.

The agenda also included a meeting with Thomas and Michael Berger, co-founders of Elevation Burger; the 1st organic burger chain started in the country. Marc Mesmer, the digital marketing manager, invited the group to experience the service and menu. Fast food can taste good and be nutritious.

 Other memorable “farm-to-table” meals took place at Talulas’ Table and the Historic Kennett Square Inn Restaurant & Tavern in Kennett Square, PA, The Mushroom Capital of the World. And to end the tour, Monique, and Teresa surprised the group with a sumptuous dinner at Nora’s, the first organic certified restaurant in Washington D.C.

This Media Tour is one of the best organized events OWN has participated. It offered first-hand information on a variety of firms, all contributing to the current growth of the organic sector. It was also interesting to see companies at the different levels of their corporate development, the start-ups, and the concept of organic business incubators to those with state-of-the-art infrastructure. The East Coast Organic Media Tour is one of the initiatives the OTA is coordinating in its International Trade department under the lead of Monique Marez. In January 2017 she will be with OTA at the Mexican Healthy Summit and in February with 13 OTA members at BIOFACH and four at VIVANESS. During Natural Products Expo West in March, there will be 22 international buyers sponsored to attend and meet with OTA members. There is FoodEx Japan in March and Seoul Hotel and Food in May. Monique joined OTA 2.5 years ago, with the responsibility to “help expose, spread and educate the international community on USDA certified organic products, systems and regulations.”

The most remarkable experience in the job with OTA?  “Traveling and learning first-hand about the excitement, commitment to, and momentum for organic agriculture around the world.  Each country has a unique approach and set of ideals but globally the message is the same:  Organic is better for eaters, farmers, and the environment.  And more and more people want to support organic”!