Romanian organic market – primitive and overpriced

organic box

The process towards becoming fashionable opens the door for trend expolitation. The consumers’ trust, wallets and nerves are crushed under the heels of those who take improper advantage on the newly born opportunity. The latest segment exhibiting this phenomenon is the organic market, suffocated by “green”,”eco”, “organic” and “natural” wannabes.

First of all, the green philosophy is an extremely authoritative one. Once assumed, it demands that human intervention should be at least minimal, if not absent at all. Where human interventions take place in growing crops, the solution must also be within the “green” parameters. For example, a piece of vineyard poor in iron – an essential ingredient in obtaining the deep color or red wines – one may sprinkle some singing nettles juice, if the owners decide that the process will not affect the wine, but the soil could never be treated with synthetic substances.   Still, the market is filled with “organic” products indulging artificial flavouring and colour, as well as frozen products, pretending they’re “bio” because some of the ingredients have been organically grown – free of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, antibiotics – and are not GMOs. However, there are states where several degrees of organic certification are in state. The US even allow the “legally organic” term, a phrase won after a long lobby campaign conducted by “industrial farming” businesses.   There are three levels of organic certification in the US: products using nothing but organic ingredients and methods can be labeled “100% organic”. Products with at least 95% organic ingredients can use the word “organic”. Both of these categories may also display the USDA organic seal. A third category, containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, can be labeled “made with organic ingredients”.   The problem is that artificial flavours and colours are just as health-damaging when used along with organic products as in any other case. The organic certification of lands is not coherent among states and even less in Romania. Organic production near a highway, a waste dump or a chemical plant means to produce food “clean” from any substances that may be absorbed from pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but “rich” in lead oxides and / or other heavy metals even more toxic than usual chemical interventions. On the other hand, a farmer using “heritage” seeds, used by the family in the past 30 years and naturally obtained from one crop to the next, may prove to be heirs of the first GMO experiments (remember the 9-pound tomatoes near Bucharest, in Otopeni!). Nothing to do, whatsoever, with the “organic” products.   This kind of information in not only far from the Romanian customers’ ears, but retailed voluntarily cast false information throughout the market. Marketplaces are the main targets. “Organic” became just another reason to increase prices, regardless the form of retail – peasants’ markets, gross markets, hypermarkets and supermarkets. The traditional products fairs have their breaches – products made with low-quality ingredients, far from any organic methods, are easy to be found.   The latest event on the Romanian market was the opening of the BioGood store, located in the exclusive area of Dorobanti / Radu Beller, in downtown Bucharest. More of a bitter taste for the few connaiseurs that could become customers, really. Being “green” may sound good, but it sure as hell does not refer to potatoes… which stand green in the shelves. But there’s more than just this simple problem.   First of all, the decision to open such a chain of stores (the flagship in Dorobanti, the one in a Northern Bucharest shopping area and those to come) means to address a segment of clients who adopted a very specific way of life and to fully satisfy their needs. This involves, above all, a certain diversity in the offer, it means to provide enough for a “bio-person”, to put enough products on shelves so that the client wpuld not have to go shopping online again. If toothpaste, fresh fruits and fish are not available, the next time he / she orders it online, he / she will also order the rest of the products, since the transport taxes are roughly the same.   The BioGood offer includes several appealing products, mainly in the gourmet jams and marmalade section. More than that though… The fresh meat offer is insignificant, compared to frozen products (quite a few, in fact). Fruits are scarce and rather faded. Some prejudice may impose a non-geometraical, non-standard shape and colour for the fruits and vegetable. Still, withered, unripe or musty are not terms to be sought after in oorganic products.   Other products raise pure doubt. If not for quality, at least for their inconsequent presentation, coming against the “organic philosophy”. Let’s just say popcorn in glass jars. Useless and anti-environmental, reminding that “better is the enemy of good” – many green NGOs accuse the glass bottle / glass jar packaging for more than a quarter of the pollution caused by international trade, be it wine, water, salt or pickles.   Next, there are some fruit juices made by Biotta, all “best for consumption” before one year. One who ever travelled beyond the Romanian border or at least used a fruit masher knows that no fruit in the world may produce a fresh, organic juice able to resist more than three days. Frozen, pasteurized, sterilized, submitted to thermal treatments, whatever one calls it, it’s far from any organic attitudem regardless how “nice” and “clean” the fruits were grown.     After the frozenm meat stand, the pastry also offers a lor of frozen-and-ready-to-be-nuked products. Spices include pine seeds four times more expensive than in any other country, even those with a lot less pine forests than Romania itself. And no one could ever say the 0.1% fat yoghurt hasn’t seen any human intervention and is as organic as Mother Nature may bring it to our tables.   For a fact, the one million Euros investment (according to some newspapers) in this organic food chain could have been a lot more productive if 10% of the money went to buying a few hectares for organic production. And it could have provided oorganic food for ten stores, not one or two. Organic meat in Romania is still easy to find, as exports recently reached unprecedented levels.   The first problem premium customers have in romania is that retailers constantly ignore the fact that they have the information and the sophistication of most premium customers around the world. They know about quality, pricing, standards and conventions, yet they  aren’t treated as such. The second problem – the eternal 100% profit Romanian retailers permanently chase. Without the 100% profit, they don’t see their businesses as a success, while Western businesses are more than happy with 15% (30% is awsome!). The third important problem is the niche philosophy. Approaching any niche should prudent commercial edges, in order to let people know that these products are worth it. It’s not the same in Romania, where Coca Cola first appeared here, it had the price of a fine local wine, considering three bottles (3×250 ml) per wine bottle.   It is easier in Romania to practice outrageous prices and to appeal to snobbish clients. Expensive still sells. A few tabloid starlets will surely come to the store, followed by paparazzi and headlines about the fortune spent on popcorn. And so a new retail star is born.   The same recipe was used by Paul and French Bakery (c’est drôle, ce nom anglais pour une boulangerie, n’est ce pas?). Heavily promoting and advertising their fresh products, they list frozen-and-nuked products on more than half of the menu. Attitude, public standards and the “well-being” they speak of are just as absent as the freshness of the BioGood frozen meat packs.   There’s more about this: icecream sold for more than double prices in deli stores, compared to mass market retail stores, anonymous chocolate sold for its weight in glod, primitive coffee mixes, Italian poor man’s wine sold as luxury… in a future story.

Radu Rizea