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Talk about timing. Unified Grocers of Los Angeles is introducing its own line of natural and organic foods and beverages to the company's independent retail accounts on the West Coast. The announcement comes just as the economy seems to be settling into a funk that will persist at least through summer.

naturaldirections.jpgThe Natural Directions line initially encompasses 120 dry grocery, refrigerated and frozen items, all packages highlighted with a bright yellow sun and a purple background. The line joins other natural/organic private labels rolled out over the past three years, including Topco's Full Circle and Safeway's O Organics, to name but two.

The retailer-owned wholesale distributor may be late to the game (Ahold USA introduced its Nature's Promise store brand in Sept. 2004), but there's plenty of room to accommodate newcomers. As a category, supermarket private label grew 1.3% in dollar volume last year, according to the Private Label Manufacturer's Association. Sales increased by $600 million for total channel sales of $45.5 billion. Industry observers point out that an impressive amount of the recent growth is due to natural/organic store brands, where the message is, "Healthful eating without the premium price."

For Natural Directions, Unified relied on Market Centre, its in-house subsidiary that oversees specialty and better-for-you programs; ND Foods; Organic Foods International; and other companies in developing the products. Organic items are certified by Quality Assurance International.

According to Ray Burtner, general manager of Unified's Market Centre unit, the rollout of new items will continue over the next several months. With consumer worry over the health of our economy increasing every day, additions to the line can't come fast enough.

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