Almost 25 years since the first organic farm took root in Hong Kong, the appeal of organic food is finally catching on. But restaurateurs, chefs, suppliers and organic experts say scant supply is leaving consumers hungry for more, and what is available still costs too much.
One-third of the 7 million people in Hong Kong now buy organic food at least once a week, according to a survey released today by the Hong Kong Organic Resource Center, the territory's first certification body. Center director and Baptist University biology professor Jonathan Wong tells The Salt he expects the market to grow by over 10 percent per year.
Food service industry members have also noticed the growing interest in organic food. "In the past few years, demand for sustainable and organic has increased considerably," says Todd Darling, chief executive officer at Integrated Hospitality Management.
He runs Homegrown Foods, a service that delivers locally grown vegetables. He also owns restaurants Linguini Fini and Posto Pubblico, which use that produce. "Awareness in general, and concern about the quality of foods, taste, nutrition and the environment has grown," he says.
Food safety concerns have pushed many consumers to look for safe alternatives. And scandals in mainland China involving poisoned infant formula and chemical-laced pork have made consumers skeptical of government assurances that the food supply is safe.
To meet rising demand, local output of organic vegetables has risen two-thirds in five years, to 5 metric tons per day. Two private certification bodies and 408 organic farms have emerged. About 300 outlets carry organic foods, including upscale grocers, supermarket chains, fresh-food markets and small retailers. There is even a local organic energy-bar maker called Stephen James Luxury Organics, dreamt up by former dentist brothers Stephen and James Costello.
But Wong says it's not enough. He believes 3 percent of the territory's residents are willing to buy organic daily, and that the figure will rise to 5 percent eventually.
Shima Shimizu, a raw-food chef and instructor who uses organic and local ingredients, agrees that they can be hard to come by. "The selection is very, very limited," he says.
Mainland China has started experimenting with other ways to get local produce to consumers, including community-supported agriculture, as NPR's Dan Charles reports.
As in the U.S., many lament that prices keep organic foods out of reach for many. "Organic supermarkets are like designer malls. Only wealthy people go there," says Jaakko Sorsa, executive chef at the Nordic restaurant Finds, and president of the Hong Kong Disciples Escoffier delegation.
Figuring out just what's truly organic is also an obstacle. Many sellers claim that their produce is organic without certification to back them up, Wong says. Consequently, consumers are highly suspicious of organic claims.
The existence of multiple labels confuses consumers, a government-commissioned study says. Foreign labels like that of the U.S. Department of Agriculture sit alongside local ones, and each represents a different standard. There is currently no Hong Kong standard for organic food. The government is studying whether its production and sale should be regulated, and if so, how.