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Published: 29 Nov 2018

Organic food is big business worldwide. And Australia is no exception.

Almost half of Australia’s organic food consumers have increased the organic portion of their food budgets this year, which means organic food products are going to get more space in Australian supermarkets.

But how do consumers decide which product to pull off a shelf and drop into their trolley?

Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) PhD candidate Maria Massey conducted an online experiment to find out.

Over 400 Australian consumers of organic food participated in simulated supermarket shopping scenarios designed by Mrs Massey.

Participants were presented with a range of options for fresh and processed foods—strawberries, tomatoes, flour, sugar, pasta sauce and chocolate. Mrs Massey analysed the impact of different factors—like brand, price, packaging and where the product was produced—on the likelihood of participants selecting a product.

Mrs Massey discovered that labelling, packaging and origin all play a role.

“Consumers of organic food are more likely to buy a product if it has a certified organic label, is locally sourced and is in sustainable packaging like paper, cardboard or glass,” Mrs Massey said.

“Out of these three factors, local origin has the biggest impact on choice.”

And while it turns out that consumers prefer and trust a certified organic label over a non-certified label, they’re not exactly sure what makes food organic.

Prior to the experiment, Mrs Massey examined thousands of consumer comments spanning 25 years on the reasons they purchase organic food.

“People buy organic food based on perceived benefits to health and the environment, but people are not clear what defines a product as ‘organic’,” Mrs Massey said.

“Globally, we don’t have a single definition of ‘organic’ food. The definition is internationally inconsistent across national standards and certification authorities.

“There is a gap between policy maker’s organic food definitions and the public’s perception.”

This is an important finding for the Australian organics market, which has grown by almost 88 per cent since 2012.

There are currently five organic certification bodies in Australia, which are all regulated by the Australian Government.

“If the Australian organic food industry better communicates what ‘organic’ means, shoppers will be empowered to make more informed purchases,” Mrs Massey said.

“The demand is there, industry just needs to plug the information gap.”

Mrs Massey’s research project is one of ten PhD projects of the Australian Research Council  (ARC) Training Centre for Innovative Horticultural Products, located at TIA.

Mrs Massey will submit her PhD thesis at the end of this year. She has already published a paper that outlines why consumers purchase organic food and two more are underway.

This article appeared in The Examiner and The Advocate on 29 November 2018.