The market value of certified organic products in Italy has increased strongly and in 2005 was 2.4 billion €, corresponding to 2% of total food sales. Of this, the domestic market accounts for 1.7 billion €, exports 0.5 billion €, and public institutions 0.2 billion €. There are over a thousand specialized shops that sell organic food, more than one-third of which are located in the north. They are mostly independent shops, with a floor area less than 100 sq. meters. There are also a growing number of larger outlets, often franchised shops, belonging to regional or national chains. A leading example is the organic retail chain ‘NaturaSì’, with 44 supermarkets, some including restaurants. NaturaSì has recently confirmed a strategic alliance with ECOR, the leading wholesaler in specialized shops, which has 200 BIO franchised organic shops.
In the early stage, export to northern countries, mainly Germany, Switzerland, and the UK, was the natural destination for most Italian organic products. Export continued to e.g. the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland, with many problems connected with the recognition of Italian organic certification by foreign private labels. By the end of the 1990s a careful estimation was that 70% was exported and 30% sold on the domestic market. By the early 2000s, the proportion tended to be an even 50-50. In the last few years, export shares have been increasing again because of the slower growth in the domestic market and, very probably, because of the good quantities and qualities of Italian organic specialties - pasta, olive oils, wines, seasoned cheeses, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Distant export markets are developing in the USA, Japan, and Asia. Animal feedstuffs are exported to more developed organic animal husbandry industries of the north, while most milk and dairy products are imported.
A market poll in 1999 revealed that organic foodstuffs such as dairy products and packaged foods were carried by 95% of all Italian supermarkets. Organic vegetables, though, were available in only 19% of those supermarkets, mainly in the northern regions and in Tuscany. Since 1999/2000, all of the country’s largest supermarket chains (Coop, Esselunga, Conad, Giesse, Pam, Carrefour, etc.) have launched their own private organic lines as well as fair trade products, which very often also are certified organic (e.g. bananas, pineapple, coffee, tea, and cocoa).
Large retailers’ share of the total Italian organic market is estimated to be over 50%. An important share is represented by the catering industry, which is slowly but steadily orienting public meals towards organic. This started already in the mid 1980s, when some regional organic farmers’ cooperatives addressed local schools, involving teachers, kids, parents, and cooks in educational activities while providing the kitchens with products. This strategy also has had a good effect on private consumption.
A new direct marketing sector is developing fast in Italy, either self-financed or supported by local administrations or consumer networks. This implies a different farm structure and organization, orienting the production towards greater variety and maybe smaller amounts. This often leads to innovative partnerships among producers. It is very similar to what happened in the pioneering days, except that now there is much more attention and response from the market.
Most of these direct sale operations are certified. The legislation also requires certification of organic shops, but only 350 organic shops/supermarkets are certified. For the catering industry organic certification is still voluntary. Recently private companies such as IKEA started to offer certified meals on children’s’ menus in all store restaurants,.
The Italian public is generally well-informed about organic production. In 2001, a survey showed that 73% of the Italians could give a correct definition of organic agriculture and knew some key characteristics (no chemicals, more natural, etc.). Nearly all the remainder (22%) gave vague, but not wrong, definitions (healthy, genuine, safe). The food scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s have given arrows to the organic bows, and the IFOAM Italy coordination group’s campaign, ‘The True Cost of Food’, based on the original UK campaign, was helpful.
Publicly sponsored (EU, national, and regional) promotional and informational campaigns have recently being launched, while earlier press and media interest was stimulated by the organic movement’s communication efforts reacting to food safety scandals.
The first marketing efforts were led by farmers, mostly in cooperatives, but many of them merged during the 1990s into larger conventional agriculture cooperatives or evolved into larger for-profit companies. In the years of the organic boom many conventional agro-food businesses and conventional supermarket chains got more involved in the organic market. However an economical crisis heavily affected consumption patterns in 2004, and some large retailers reduced their investments in organic.The commitment of the market actors is still unstable in many cases, since the general food crisis has led to decreased sales, which also affected organic products. The challenges that the marketing pioneers had to face in the early days were enormous, and often they even were legally or politically challenged and always had to work while underfinanced. They did not always overcome the obstacles, but managed by and by to gain support from other farmers, green politicians and institutions, and consumers.
Case Studies in Italy
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