After years in the ascendant, the organic category is approaching a cross-roads. Though sales soared 13.4% in the year to March, taking the category through the £1bn barrier to £1.1bn [TNS Worldpanel 52w/e 23 March 2008], some experts are predicting that growth will slow this year to about 10%.

A weakening economy coupled with the credit squeeze and food inflation could take the heat out of categories perceived as premium, they warn. Add to this the negative press surrounding "confusing" food labelling, and the category that still only represents 2.5% of total food sales could be in trouble. If growth did slow, it would mark a major change of fortune.

In the year to March, six out of eight product sub-sectors showed double-digit growth - the 'laggards' being bakery, sales of which rose 8.5%, and frozen food, sales of which slumped 9% .

The fastest-growing category is chilled, which is being driven mainly by retail price increases. Dairy and produce are still neck-and-neck with the largest shares of the market, at 27.4% and 26.9% respectively.

These star performers are reaching 5% to 8% share of the total UK market, with milk and yoghurt hitting 10%, according to Organic Monitor. This year, however, has not got off to a brilliant start.

January's jubilation at the sales boost generated by Jamie Oliver's and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV campaign against factory-farmed chickens and eggs was followed by a rash of conflicting headlines.

Delia Smith said she "doesn't do organic" and a BBC documentary questioned whether there was any benefit in eating organic food, forcing the Soil Association to go on the offensive, citing a "growing body of evidence that organic food is more nutritious".

Consumer confidence in premium food ranges - including organics - was further dented by a Which? investigation that claimed food fraud was affecting as much as 10% of food sold through high-street stores and restaurants.

There have also been claims consumers find the category confusing. Research published last month by the Dunnhumby Academy of Consumer Research found that shoppers were often confused about why they bought organic food, with many disappointed with the taste of fruit and veg.

Professor Andrew Fearne, who led the survey, says organic producers need to work on better-tasting food rather than productivity. This, he adds, will address the "woefully low" repeat purchase rates.

Shoppers tussling with the relative merits of organic compared with local, seasonal or Fairtrade are thus looking for products that offer provenance and tick more than one ethical box.

"Two ticks are better than one," says David Jago, director of Mintel's global new products database.

"If a product is organic people naturally expect higher ethical standards anyway, so they have to be really squeaky clean. That's another challenge because people scrutinise organic more deeply. They will be more critical of the packaging, for example."

Organic goods are increasingly expected to deliver on more than one front, agrees Ben Cull, marketing director at organic brand Yeo Valley. But he adds: "First and foremost it's a system of farming and needs to stick to its principles. What it does need is a human face - it could be understood more clearly by consumers."

Organic suppliers need to address the issue of consumer confusion, adds Organic Monitor's director Amarjit Sahota. "Fairtrade has a simple message, but organic throws up environmental benefits, quality, nutrition and sustainability," he says. "This makes things complicated."

The Organic Trade Board, which had its first meeting last month, could play an important role in simplifying the message.

According to David Bird, author of the latest Mintel report on the organics sector, new scientific evidence of the additional nutritional benefits of organic food is likely to provide the greatest boost to market growth in organics.

All eyes will therefore be on next week's fourth Quality Low Input Food Congress in Italy. Researchers from Newcastle University will release the results of their long-term study into the nutritional value of organic versus non-organic food.

"A growing AB population and a greater concern and awareness over health and ethical issues will also be a powerful driver behind growth," says Bird.

Whether growth is possible will be largely dependent upon securing further supplies, a major headache for all involved in the organic supply chain.n