J Sainsbury has been voted the number one organic food retailer in the UK by a panel of consumers and experts organised by the Soil Association, Britain's leading organic promoter.
The panel of 1,000 consumers and nine experts from both the organic and retail sectors, were asked to assess retailers' performance in five key sectors - customer satisfaction, quality and choice, the environment and animal welfare, UK trading practices and consumer education.
The judges made their decision based on questionnaires completed by the stores themselves, as well as a customer survey and supplier reports.
"Sainsbury has won the Organic Supermarket of the Year Award by putting a lot of thought and hard work into its organic strategy and by showing real commitment to high organic standards," commented Martin Cottingham, marketing director for the Soil Association.
"Supermarkets are responsible for over 80 per cent of organic food sales in the UK. Their approaches and policies on quality, trading relationships and the environment will have a huge impact on the prospects for a more sustainable faring future."
Not surprisingly, Sainsbury's Ian Merton was delighted with the award. "It is a reflection of our commitment to the organic market," said Merton, the company's fresh foods trading director. "We will continue to strive to be at the forefront of this changing market by understanding and meeting our customers' needs and focusing on integrity, quality and innovation."
Sainsbury beat off opposition from many of the other major retailers in the UK - since any company with 10 or more stores in at least three English regions was invited to take part in the competition. Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose were the other participants, while Asda and Safeway were the most noticeable absences.
Sainsbury and M&S topped the poll in terms of customer satisfaction (in terms of quality, choice and value for money), while Sainsbury was also at the top of the list when it came to consumer education and the environment. For example, the chain was praised for recycling food waste and sourcing its eggs from organic farms.
Waitrose was the chain with the largest range of organic fresh produce, and noted for its information leaflets and website, while Tesco came out on top when it came to using biodegradable packaging for its fresh organic produce.
The quality and choice category was dominated by Waitrose, scoring full marks for its 1,500 organic products, two thirds of which are available in every store. Its organic bread, cheese and milk were particularly appreciated. Sainsbury's range was also praised, in particular its Well Being section, as was its commitment to only stocking food certified by the international accreditation body IFOAM.
Tesco's dried, packaged and tinned organic foods were also popular, as was its "no mean achievement" of selling a full range of organic meat to mainstream Britain.
Waitrose was also the best chain when it came to trading practices, sourcing from UK farmers and committing to smaller suppliers. Sainsbury and M&S were also praised for sourcing form the UK, but all the retailers involved were urged to adopt clearer definitions and targets for local food and to invest in decentralised food distribution.