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'Fair trade' food booming in Britain

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In a quiet church vestibule on the southern edge of London, they're doing brisk business. Customers are digging out change for tea bags and cookies. Bags of coffee are being snapped up as if they were the last in town.

"It's only the second year we've done this, but it's really taking off," says Nova Smith, a church volunteer who helps organize the sale of "fair-trade" items. "People are more and more interested in fair trade."

Data show that Britons are avidly buying fair-trade groceries, organic foods, and sustainably farmed produce. Experts speak of a cultural shift in which foodstuffs once considered niche and expensive are now going mainstream.

"They've gone from the margins to the mainstream quite fast," says Professor Tim Lang, an expert in food policy at London's City University. He says the reasons are manifold: good campaigning, globalization, and "large problems that have come into the public arena, like water shortages, adulteration of foods, pollution, contamination, and public-health problems."

In recent months, evidence of this quiet food revolution has multiplied. Supermarkets and major retailers are rapidly expanding their fair-trade offerings such that there are now 1,500 different fair-trade goods on the market. Sales reached more than $500 million last year, up 46 percent from the previous year. Last month, one leading supermarket, Sainsbury, said all its bananas would now be fair-trade. Tea and coffee in another leading retailer, Marks and Spencer, is now exclusively fair-trade.

Purveyors of organic (chemical-free) foods report strong growth as well. Sales of more than $1.9 billion annually (out of a total national grocery turnover of around $135 billion) are growing at 30 percent a year in England. A recent survey by the Oxfam charity, a proponent of fair trade, found that two-thirds of shoppers had refused to buy something because its producer was associated with unethical practices.

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