THE latest series of health scares and damning market-hygiene reports seems to have sent people scuttling in search of the healthiest eating possible. Around a rattled SAR, organic-food suppliers are reporting an unusual flood of interest. Organic co-operative Real Food (Tel: 2851-8781) has been deluged with inquiries after it was recently featured in Ming Pao. Health Gate (Tel: 2545-2286) on Des Voeux Road has received 'many, many calls' since the chicken flu outbreaks. Organic Gardens (Tel: 2815-3642), which runs the popular The Source of Health (Tel: 2869-7383) restaurant on D'Aguilar Street, believes there is now enough demand even in very traditional areas to expand into Mongkok and has opened a new shop and restaurant (Tel: 2628-9068), 'a real challenge' given that the area is 95 per cent Chinese. Green Concepts' (Tel: 2882-4848) manager Lureen Tsang feels their growing number of customers are looking for alternatives to ending up at the doctor's. Credit for the fact that people are turning to these products - grown without the aid of chemical fertilisers and pesticides - goes in part to suppliers more responsive to a difficult Hong Kong marketplace than they were just three or four years ago. Producers have come up with new, increasingly successful sales strategies. Evidence lies in the fact that, although organic shops are still usually an inconvenient trek away, there are now a number of delivery schemes and a growing number of shops. Organic produce here has always attracted a steady stream of expat or upper-income customers. Now the ordinary consumer appears to be gradually becoming more knowledgeable. 'So many youngsters have been educated abroad in recent years, and now they're coming back and educating their families about healthier eating,' said Ms Tsang. Nobody is under any illusions about the difficulties that exist in building on the current interest in organics. 'When I started the co-op, I sent out 2,000 fliers in English and 5,000 in Cantonese,' said Nadine Newlight, a teacher from New York who set up Real Food in 1994, frustrated by the limited, erratic supply of expensive organic produce here. 'I had a good response from English speakers and not a single reply from the Cantonese leaflets.' The reason, she feels, was price. Organic food costs at least 30 per cent more than standard supermarket fare. People in the SAR, used to an abundance of cheap, fresh produce, were asking themselves why they needed to pay that much extra. Government health warnings, viruses, pesticide poisonings, pollution fears and better marketing seem to provide an explanation. Real Food now has a membership of 150 families and a waiting list to join in the share-out of fruit and vegetables flown in twice a month from California and Australia. Organic Gardens, meanwhile, has taken a different route to solving the problem of an uninitiated local consumer and is 'aggressively educating the people', luring customers with something a little more in line with modern thinking than a healthy carrot: a wide range of organic snacks such as popcorn, rice cakes and crisps to add to its locally grown vegetables and grains, beans, cereals and drinks. 'Organic thinking in Hong Kong is still really green,' said marketing manager Tansy Chen. 'A lot of people resist organic food because they say it must be bland and tasteless. People like to eat out and don't like to cook much and see organic food as having a long cooking time. We've had to change our strategy to change that thinking.' Health Gate, too, is devoting time and energy to the problem. 'We're training our staff up now in organics, not just health food,' said assistant manager Yolanda Che. 'There's a lot of exchange of information with customers going on now.' Frozen organic food such as full meals, pies, fries and waffles have been added to their wide range of health foods. Although Hong Kong has no organically raised livestock, there are six self-regulated organic farms. Dave Saunders who, with partner Fung Bing-law, runs Merry Farm (Tel: 2982-4494) on Lamma, explains why there are still so few farms given the increasing market. 'Organic farming is very labour-intensive. That becomes a problem when the competition can offer produce for much less and, generally, restaurants are all looking for the cheaper source. Getting soil in good condition requires hard work and most non-organic farmers are virtually growing in sand and throwing chemicals on.' Selling organics to Hong Kong has become something of a mission for those involved. 'We don't want to create a trend but start a culture and that's a long process,' said Ms Chen of Organic Gardens' approach. The firm got started the way of several organic outlets in Hong Kong, which may explain some of the zeal. Spurred on by Hong Kong's big problem with allergies and skin problems, natural health practitioner Karman Shiu wanted to provide healthier food for patients at his Causeway Bay clinic. He quickly ran into difficulties finding fresh organic produce which gave rise to a 33,000-square-metre farm in Sheung Shui four years ago. Now there are also four shops, Western-style vegetarian restaurant The Source of Health, and sales to Seibu, Daimaru, city'super and Jusco. Green Concepts was launched for similar reasons by naturopath, homeopath and chiropractor Dr Alexander Yuan. The shop buys its fresh produce from Organic Gardens, fruit from Australia, and a vast range of dry goods from around the world. Health talks are given every month and the shop stocks health videos and books. At Health Gate, staff are encouraging customers to go the whole hog and change their lifestyle. 'I think Hong Kong's attitude of eating just anything is going to be history soon,' said Ms Che. 'People have worked hard and struggled and now they see it's time to improve their health. It's been a fairly recent trend.' The higher cost of organic food is off-putting, she admits, but 'at the end of the day, they buy - it's just the Hong Kong mentality that they complain first'.