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Major grocery chains expand organic fare

Meanwhile, Vita Health opens another city outlet

Vita Health's Matt Holtmann shows a melon Tuesday in local health-food chain's newest store at 3500 Portage Avenue.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Vita Health's Matt Holtmann shows a melon Tuesday in local health-food chain's newest store at 3500 Portage Avenue.

Organic food isn't just for hippies and tree-huggers anymore.

Major grocers, such as Canada Safeway, Real Canadian Superstore, and Sobeys, have been not only expanding their organic-food sections but also posting more competitive prices. It's apparent this one-time niche area is now a billion-dollar industry.

Not to be outdone by the industry giants, Vita Health Fresh Market has opened its biggest store in its 77-year history. The 6,700-square-foot outlet in Westwood is more than 50 per cent bigger than its typical location.

"We've had a tonne of success as we've gone into the grocery side of the business. We feel customers are looking for a more well-rounded shopping experience," said Matt Holtmann, president of Winnipeg-based Vita Health.

"We had a hole in the west end of the city. Our customers had been asking for something closer. The closest store would have been in Tuxedo. We knew we had customers coming from there already, but the distance they had to travel was too far," Holtmann said.

The new location will enable Vita Health to have a larger array of offerings, including a deli counter featuring healthy sliced sandwich meats such as summer sausage and roast beef. It will also have a selection of prepared meals, including salads and wraps.

For those who are curious what the organic movement is all about, here's a quick snapshot -- an independent certifying agency ensures any food product meets the criteria to be considered organic.

For example, farmland has to be free of artificial pesticides and fertilizers for five years. (Some organic fertilizers are permitted to combat crop disease.)

Meat products need to be free of growth hormones and antibiotics and the animals must have been given organic feed.

Holtmann said it's important to realize the difference between organic and "natural" food, which hasn't been subject to any certification process.

The biggest driver of Vita Health's business is people with young families, he said.

"That gets people thinking about what they're putting in their bodies and looking for more natural alternatives," he said.

Sobeys launched its Compliments Organics brand in 2006, and its registered dietitians ensure every item meets the nutritional criteria for organic food. Its product line includes everything from bananas and beans to chicken burgers and granola.

Keri Scobie, Edmonton-based communications manager for Sobeys West, said organic products are a growing part of Sobeys business.

"We're looking to see how we can serve the population better for healthier food choices and what our organic offering can look like. Research shows that Canadians and consumers are interested in healthier and better products. It's a priority area for us," she said.

The Westwood store brings Vita Health's total to seven stores in Winnipeg. Other outlets are in Garden City, St. Vital, Osborne Village, Tuxedo Park and North Kildonan, plus a no-frills organic store, Eat It.ca, in the West End.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Economies of scale lower organic price

As the organic sector matures, the economies of scale improve and the prices fall. Organic apples, for example, might only cost about 10 per cent more than non-organic. Eggs, another well-developed organic item, typically cost 15 per cent higher. Milk, on the other hand, because there are only four organic farms in Manitoba and one creamery, can be twice as expensive.

-- source: Vita Health

Related video: Jets Jim Slater lives the organic lifestyle

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