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Germany: Discounters conquer organic food business

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

There are more and more cheap organic food on the shelves of supermarkets even the discounters outdo each other with offers. Are organic pioneers the losers of this boom?

Aldi Süd has just gone on the offensive again: "Only nature, that's organic that goes further, for a conscious diet," says the commercial for the new brand of the discount supermarket chain. A press spokeswoman explains what "goes on" means in concrete terms: "The unique selling point of the brand is based on ingredients that are as original as possible, such as spelt, sea and rock salt instead of table or industrial salt and gentle processing." Sentences that used to be heard only in health food stores, but not from the industry giants.

"Quality will suffer"

Since 1987 there has been the organic shop "Quer Beet" in Kassel. Owner Mira Sulzbacher feels every day what it means when there is more and more cheap organic at discounters. "Of course, our organic shop is a bit more expensive than the organic at Lidl or Aldi, so customers are already leaving. We have noticed in particular that less fruit and vegetables are being bought, which has always been our strongest pillar. But it has also become less overall."

The 33-year-old grew up in the shop her father founded. 36 years ago, Martin Sulzbacher was one of the first in northern Hesse to focus on organic. He was often laughed at for his idealism. He is sceptical about the development towards more and more organic from discounters: "If everyone goes organic, it won't be the same. Bioland will cut corners, Demeter probably too. So I'm afraid the quality will suffer as a result."

It resonates with customers

There were similar fears when Lidl and Bioland announced their cooperation in 2018. Nothing has happened, except that customers can now buy organic cheaper. And the figures show that this is well received. Sales of organic food in Germany have more than doubled from 7 billion euros in 2012 to 15 billion in 2022.

According to market researcher GfK, sales of organic supermarkets slumped by 10.8 percent last year. The health food stores even recorded a minus of 37.5 percent. The situation is quite different for the private labels of retail chains: they have increased by nine percent.

Organic as the "new normal"?

Aldi Süd is focusing on this effect with the new brand. They are supported by the organic association Naturland, whose logo can be found on some of the products. "We have the climate catastrophe, we have the dramatic loss of biodiversity, we have animal husbandry that is completely unacceptable in parts, and organic is simply part of the solution to these problems. That's why organic is imperative as the 'new normal'," says Naturland Managing Director Steffen Reese.

For him, there is no alternative to working with discounters to reach mass customers. So are Naturland and Co. partly responsible for the decline of small shops? "I don't think success eats the pioneers at this point," says Reese. "We have different target groups in the discount and health food trade, and I believe that if we succeed in attracting more organic customers through the discount, then they will also go to the organic shops in search of other products."

Where is all the organic supposed to come from?

Norbert Klapp has been a pig farmer for 30 years. His breeding stables have husbandry type 2, which means "stable husbandry plus". This is slightly above the legal minimum standards: Each breeding sow has 0.8 square meters of space. Around 95 percent of the breeding stables in Germany have this type of husbandry.

A conversion to organic farming would be expensive: "I'm at just under a million euros that I would have to invest," says Klapp. "Of course, I'm also worried about it. The problem at the moment is still security, long-term contracts, for example, so that I don't get stuck with my investments." The farmer advises not to always look at the organic seals, but to buy regionally produced products.

Not all organic products are the same

Mira Sulzbacher from the organic shop "Quer Beet" also says that her organic from the region is very different from the discounter organic: "The main aspect for me is actually regionality and seasonality. We have many suppliers here directly from Kassel or the surrounding area. These are very small companies, which means that we simply have a much wider range of direct suppliers."

She also thinks that it is good for everyone that more and more food is being produced according to the high organic standards. She wants to persevere and hopes that organic will really become the "new normal" and that her organic shop will also benefit from it.


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