Hain c.e.o. sees progress on healthy eating front

by Eric Schroeder
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NEW YORK — New nutrition guidelines at The Walt Disney Co. and proposed legislation by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would ban the sale of large sugary beverages are just two of the signs that consumers are moving toward healthier eating, said Irwin Simon, chief executive officer of Hain Celestial Group.

Speaking in front of participants at the Piper Jaffray Consumer Conference in New York on June 5, Mr. Simon said times have changed since he founded the Melville, N.Y.-based company in 1993. At that time, when he talked about healthy eating most people thought he should “get some help for my head,” Mr. Irwin said. But today, more and more consumers are converting from conventional foods to natural and organic products.

Mr. Irwin said that while Whole Foods is Hain’s biggest customer and will continue to open more and more stores, the sharpest gains in consumption are coming from supermarkets and mass markets, a good sign for overall category growth.

“It’s not just sold in Whole Foods and in Trader Joe’s today, or natural independents, natural organic is spreading across grocery and mass market,” he said, noting that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Target Stores are two examples of outlets stepping up their focus on healthy foods.

With more outlets for natural and organic products the opportunity is ripe for larger players and traditional consumer packaged goods companies to enter the mix. Asked what has prevented those companies from becoming more involved in the space Mr. Irwin responded that they are out there — from the Kellogg Co.’s Kashi brand to Kraft Foods Inc.’s Back to Nature to Coca-Cola Co.’s Odwalla and PepsiCo Inc.’s Naked Juice — but the difference is Hain wakes up every day with a focus on natural and organic.

“The consumer is smart enough today to understand a brand can’t be both ways,” he said. “You can’t have Gerber organic and Gerber regular; Campbell’s organic and Campbell’s regular.

“Hain alone cannot just educate the consumer about eating healthy. Listen, I love the idea what Disney is doing. I love the idea of what the mayor is doing here in New York City. So from my standpoint, I welcome the bigger companies coming in and putting more and more healthy food out there because, No. 1, it takes a lot of the (bad stuff) that’s out there today away, but it helps bring more and more consumers into the category, and I think that’s the big thing: How do we get more and more of a consumer base and go after more of a target audience.”

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