Consumer cooperatives and companies delivering food door-to-door face rough going amid prolonged lackluster consumption and fierce distribution competition.
Trying to ride out the tough times, they are introducing free delivery services for small-lot food parcels. They are also reviewing their own organic farming methods and inspection criteria to cope with stricter standards that debut this month for organically grown agricultural products.
“The government is making a fuss now in this era of deflation, but we really felt it about two years ago,” said Yoneo Fukazawa, chief of the agricultural product department of Co-op Tokyo.
He said many members tell the co-op every day what they think of the delivery service, adding that complaints about not being able to consume all the produce delivered stood out the most.
Emphasizing that curbs in consumption have taken root, Fukazawa said the number of consumers purchasing low-priced items for full consumption is on the rise.
Co-op Tokyo has about 750,000 members in the Tokyo metropolitan area and is the third-largest cooperative union in the country.
Although it posted a 5 percent increase in members from last year according to its latest information, sales of farm products showed only 2.5 percent growth due to a decline in sales per customer.
In complying with customer requests, Co-op Tokyo is delivering packages in small lots. The number of apples delivered once a week is down from six to four. A parcel of strawberries has now been reduced in weight to 200 grams.
Radish Boya Co., a firm specializing in home delivery of vegetables grown with little or no use of pesticides and other chemicals, has about 60,000 members in the Tokyo area and Osaka.
The Tokyo-based company successfully boosted its membership until the second half of the 1990s, riding the crest of a wave of consumer safety consciousness. However, it posted only single-digit sales growth in the past few years in the face of intensified competition, especially from major supermarkets aggressively selling organic foodstuffs.
“The number of places where (consumers can) obtain organic food is increasing,” said Daisuke Ogata, president of the company. “As the competition heats up, we are studying such measures as free delivery services to our regular customers.”
He admitted that part of the reason behind the poor results is that the company is not fully responding to the needs of its customers.
In an effort to rectify this, Radish Boya is striving to develop processed foodstuffs that working women can cook easily as well as “eco goods” friendly to the environment.
Daichi-o-Mamoru-Kai (the Association to Preserve the Earth) provides door-to-door delivery service of organic vegetables and those grown with low quantities of chemicals and additive-free foodstuffs to about 53,000 members in the Tokyo area.
However, the vegetables it can label as organic farm products under the revised Japanese Agriculture Standards account for less than 10 percent of its total shipments.
The standards stipulate that only produce cultivated on farms free of chemical fertilizers and chemicals for more than three years can be labeled organic.
Yet, the level of vegetables supplied by the Tokyo-based association, which grew out of a civic movement, is high when considering that less than 1 percent of vegetables grown in Japan are qualified to carry the JAS organic produce label.
The association is carrying out thorough management of farms, helping its 2,500 contracted farmers across the country gain JAS certification.
Managing Director Kunio Asanoi said the association has been checking on each farm household under its contract to put into practice its own standards for organic food products.
Explaining the association’s efforts to overcome the JAS problem, he said, “Since our goal is to establish a face to face relationship between consumers and producers, we will press ahead with disclosure of information to our members.”
Fukazawa of Co-op Tokyo said the revised JAS focuses too much on producers.
“Safety is a prerequisite, but price and taste are also important for consumers,” he said, stressing his organization’s aggressiveness in reinforcing its own inspection system for chemicals as well as developing inexpensive produce.
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