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Two separate pieces of data released this month clearly show that the organic category continues to be a solid driver of growth at retail — and devotees are committed to the category.

The Organic Produce Network released scan data showing that organic fresh produce sales started 2018 strong with 8 percent dollar and volume growth compared to the first quarter of 2017. Organic packaged salads continue to lead the way as that category accounts for 19 percent of all organic fresh produce sales. Behind packaged salad sales were organic berries and apples, with the three categories making up 40 percent of all organic fresh produce sales for the baby bok choy.

OPN’s analysis of data collected by Nielsen showed organic fresh vegetables accounted for a larger portion of organic dollars than fruits ($632 million vs $400 million). Other organic items sold in the produce department, including herbs, spices, beverages and dressings, added $205 million in sales, for a total of more than $1.2 billion in organic produce sales for the quarter.

Organic berries, led by strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, continue to see explosive growth, making up 13.5 percent ($166 million) of all organic fresh produce sales and more than 40 percent of all organic fruit sales. In addition, the organic berry category realized a 21 percent increase in dollars when measured against the last quarter of 2017, and a 26 percent growth in volume compared to a year ago.

“Organic fresh produce continues to be a major revenue generator at retail. In addition to berries, organic potatoes, mushrooms, herbs/spices, beverages and avocadoes all increased by double digits in both dollar and sales volume compared to the first quarter of last year,” said Matt Seeley, chief executive officer of OPN. “At the same time, per Nielsen data, conventionally grown berries, beverages mushrooms, potatoes and herbs/spices were all flat or declined in volume sales.”

Organic packaged salads continue to dominate organic fresh vegetables sales, topping a quarter billion dollars in the first quarter of 2018. According to Nielsen data, more than 80 percent of organic produce dollars come from UPC items compared to only 57 percent for conventionally grown produce items.

Matt Lally, client manager for Nielsen, said the first quarter numbers reflect continued growth for all organic fresh produce. “Parents and millennials have led the surge in sales, which could prove quite the combination in the coming years as more millennials become parents,” he said. “Today’s consumer is interested in eating simpler, cleaner products and this is seen in the continued growth of organic fresh produce.”

On the heels of this data, the NPD Group, a leading global information company, revealed research showing that the organic shopper is very committed to the category, and continues to grow it. The percentage of eating occasions where foods with organic labels were consumed increased from 7.5 percent to 9.7 percent in the past three years. Surveying consumers over a seven-day period, NPD found that about 10 percent of the population consumes all organic foods, 19 percent consume all natural and organic foods, and 20 percent all natural only foods. About 51 percent of the population are non-users of organic and all natural foods, according to NPD’s National Eating Trends report.

Organic-only consumers tend to be female, ages 35-44 and 55-64, live on the West Coast, have a household income of $75,000 plus, and, most importantly, have strong convictions when it comes to their healthy lifestyle. According to a press release from NPD, “They feel they know more about nutrition than most people and frequently check labels.”

The research showed that the demographics of those who consume both all natural and organic foods skew toward children under the age of 6, females, ages 18-54, and Hispanics. Similar to organic-only consumers, they maintain a healthy lifestyle and consider themselves knowledgeable about nutrition and the foods they eat. Conversely consumers of all-natural were more generic in their beliefs. NPD notes that this group was “remarkably average in their attitudes toward healthful eating and put greater importance on taste and convenience.”

As such, Darren Seife, an NPD food and beverage industry analyst, said these consumers look at food very differently and react differently, for example, to news report that may have a negative connotation about the types of foods they eat. “Organic consumers will hold steadfast to their beliefs and continue to seek organic foods despite negative reporting, and all-natural consumers will continue to place convenience and taste first,” he said. “For food manufacturers, grocers and producers, it’s a matter of understanding the attitudes and behaviors of each group and responding to their unique needs and wants.”

The Kroger Co. and online supermarket Ocado announced an exclusive partnership agreement in the United States that will accelerate Kroger's creation of a seamless shopping experience for America's families.krolog

The alliance will bring to the U.S. for the first time the unparalleled technology underpinnings of the Ocado Smart Platform, which includes online ordering, automated fulfillment and home delivery capabilities.  

As part of the partnership agreement, Kroger will increase its existing investment in Ocado by 5 percent in a subscription rights agreement. This will bring the company's total investment to more than 6 percent. Ocado will partner exclusively with Kroger in the U.S., enhancing Kroger's digital and robotics capabilities and helping expand its seamless coverage area to provide every family in America with the convenience of shopping for anything, any time and anywhere.

"We see Ocado as an innovative, exciting and transformative partnership in pursuit of our Restock Kroger vision, to serve America through food inspiration and uplift," said Rodney McMullen, Kroger's chairman and chief executive officer. "We are actively creating a seamless digital experience for our customers. Our partnership with Ocado will speed up our efforts to redefine the food and grocery customer experience — creating value for customers and shareholders alike."

"Ocado's unique, proprietary and industry-leading technology is set to transform the shopping experience of consumers around the world," said Tim Steiner, CEO of Ocado Group. "Our success as a retailer shows that we can offer customers unrivalled choice, quality and convenience, efficiently and profitably. The opportunity to partner with Kroger to transform the way in which U.S. customers buy grocery represents a huge opportunity to redefine the grocery experience of Kroger's customers and create value for the stakeholders of both Kroger and Ocado. As we work through the terms of the services agreement with Kroger in the coming months, we will be preparing the business for a transformative relationship which will reshape the food retailing industry in the U.S. in the years to come."

Kroger and Ocado are already working to identify the first three sites in 2018 for development of new, automated warehouse facilities in the U.S., and will identify up to a total of 20 over the first three years of the agreement.

"We look forward to innovating together with Ocado to provide our customers the best possible online and in store experience," said Alex Tosolini, senior vice president of business development. "Through Restock Kroger, we will continue expanding partnerships to create customer value."

HART, MI — Like much of the nation, winter lingered in Michigan this spring. Vegetable growers are running late, but overall the condition of Michigan crops look good.

As The Produce News toured key Michigan growing areas the week of May 7, grower-shippers were mostly comfortable that their blooming crops would be safe from a spring freeze.bayNick Osmulski of North Bay Produce

For North Bay Produce Inc., Michigan asparagus season started from the southwest corner of the state in the weekend of May 5. “The volume there is ramping up quickly,” Nick Osmulski said May 8. “The growers are raving about the quality.”

Mason and Oceana counties were expected to start about May 15.

Sitting in North Bay’s conference room in the new office near Traverse City, MI, Osmulski confirmed that Michigan asparagus had a slow start, due to a cold April, “but once it started, everyone had a good flush quickly. Last year the asparagus deal started April 24. This year is it was May 5.”

Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc., in Sparta, MI, began shipping asparagus from the southern side of the state on May 7. Don Armock, Riveridge president, said May 10 that Riveridge would begin shipping from Hart and Shelby, MI, the following week.

That’s consistent with Aaron Fletcher’s expectations in Hart. Fletcher said May 8 that Todd Greiner Farms would begin harvest about May 15-17. “That’s a little late. Last year it was May 13. Hart is near Lake Michigan in the west-central part of the state.

This year, “we hope for good, steady production,” Fletcher noted. “We hope the later start will avoid frost.”

Armock said the asparagus markets “look pretty good. We anticipate a pretty good season.” Riveridge will ship asparagus until July 4, depending on the weather.

Fletcher, who is sales manager for Todd Greiner, expected the firm’s apple bloom to come about May 25. “That’s probably safe from frost,” he said, as he reached to knock on wood.

Todd Greiner has increased its asparagus production this year. Other key vegetables grown and shipped by the firm include sweet corn, zucchini, pumpkins and hard squash.

“We plant and grow more apples every year,” Fletcher added. The firm is heavy to Fuji and Gala production “and we have a fairly significant crop of Honey Crisp.”

Greiner’s zucchini will ship from as early as July 10 until about Sept. 1.

Todd Van Solkema, chief executive officer of Van Solkema Produce Inc. in Byron Center, MI, expected radish shipping to begin in the range of May 20-23. Two radish plantings were struck by snow and cold in early April then again in the week of April 18. “There was not a lot out in the fields then,” he added.

Convenient and portable may not be the first qualities that come to mind when you think of a big, whole watermelon; however, the National Watermelon Promotion Board is challenging that thinking and creating new occasions for eating watermelon.watermel

NWPB recently visited Time Inc. Food Studios in Birmingham, AL, to demonstrate endless ideas for watermelon-on-the-go as breakfast, snacks, lunches and beverages. The media event drew attendance from food editors and recipe developers from Time Inc.’s 11 different brands, including Southern Living, Cooking Light, Health and Real Simple.

At the test kitchen, NWPB conducted a watermelon butchery demo, cutting wedges, sticks and diced watermelon from the flesh, blending it for juice and even using the edible rind for zero waste.

“Snacking and on-the-go eating occasions are on the rise with consumers’ busy lifestyles. We showed food editors how one watermelon offers various cuts and can create multiple simple and portable recipes,” said Stephanie Barlow, NWPB senior director of communications. “We can’t wait to see how the demonstration and menu samples inspire future editorial content and recipes.”

U.S. Customs & Border Protection Office of Field Operations CBP officers at Laredo Port of Entry recently apprehended three pedestrians in connection with the seizure of alleged methamphetamine with a street value of $331,000 hidden within cans of produce.

“Our frontline officers continue to maintain vigilance while conducting their inspections and the judicious application of experience and instinct resulted in the arrest of three pedestrians and the seizure of a significant load of hard narcotics hidden within canned produce,” said Port Director Alberto Flores, Laredo Port of Entry.

The seizure occurred on Tuesday, May 15, when CBP officers at the Gateway to the Americas Bridge referred three U.S. citizens — a 29-year-old man and two women, ages 22 and 28 — for a secondary examination. Further examination utilizing a CBP canine and non-intrusive imaging systems resulted in the discovery of 23.63 pounds of methamphetamine in cans of hominy and Jalapeños within travelers’ baggage. The methamphetamine has an estimated street value of $331,000.

 CBP seized the narcotics, arrested all three pedestrians and referred the case for further investigation by Homeland Security Investigations special agents.