Demand for organic food in the UK has slowed as consumers tighten their belts during the recession, an industry report said today (6 April).

Organic sales inched up by 1.7% to over GBP2.1bn (US$3.12bn) in 2008, although the figure was boosted by food inflation, the Soil Association said.

Sales of organic fruit, bread and confectionery tumbled as consumers opted instead for lower-priced, conventional products.

Fruit sales fell by 13.5% in value terms, while high cereal prices and growing consumer demand for cheaper products meant bread sales dropped 13.1%. Fish sales slumped by 18.7%.

Nevertheless, the Soil Association said the figures gave a “mixed picture” of the state of the UK organic sector, with categories including fresh red meat, cooking ingredients and milk seeing sales rise by double digits.

“This has been a really difficult period for all retail, and organic sales have suffered along with the rest of the economy,” Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said.

“But those consumers who are committed to organic products appear to be staying loyal. This shows the underlying resilience of the organic market, which we believe will grow again once the economy picks up.”

Asda and Morrisons saw their organic sales rise last year, the Soil Association said. Asda’s sales jumped 25% in 2008, while Morrisons saw its organic sales rise by 3.2% during the 12 months to the end of January this year.

Tesco, however, saw its sales fall 9.9% in 2008, while Sainsbury’s organic sales decreased by 4.4%, the Soil Association said.

The average spent per household on organic products in the UK fell from GBP51.28 in 2007 to GBP50.55 in 2008, according to the Soil Association’s figures.

However, the organic cerification body said the market continued to grow due to an increase in the average spent per shopping trip and because the proportion of households eating organic also increased.

According to figures from TNS, some 90% of UK households bought organic products in 2008.