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Inside Scoop: Organics from China

I’ve been hearing some questions about whether it’s possible to get organic products from China, so I went to Margaret Wittenberg to find out the inside scoop. Margaret has been with Whole Foods Market for about 27 years and she served on the National Organic Standards Board and helped write the USDA Organic Rule, so I figured she would be in the know. (Transparency alert: Margaret was my Team Leader for many years and I love this woman. Her integrity is unbelievable!) Anyway, here’s a quick blurb from Margaret on the whole organics in China deal:
Whole Foods Market is a transparent company. We take pride in informing our customers about where our products come from so they can make conscious buying choices. The reality nowadays is that sourcing high quality organic products has gone global. Many companies play the game of sourcing ingredients from one country and packaging them elsewhere so they can be labeled from the country they were packaged in. Not at Whole Foods Market. For example, our Private Label team sources a few high quality organic products from China and we let our shoppers know that up front. We go to great lengths to ensure that the quality and organic integrity is there every step of the way, whether we are sourcing our products from around the corner or around the globe. We are proud of the processes, safeguards and protocols we have in place and we want our customers to know exactly what we do when it comes to sourcing.
If you want to know more about our organic sourcing, check out “Sources You Can Trust” – new info just posted to our website. We plan to have more on this topic this Friday. Got a specific question about organic sourcing? Let me know and I’ll try to make sure it is answered with the info posting Friday.

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68 comments

Comments

SL says …

My concern about organics from other countries - I know at one time a main difference between organic gardening in this country and other countries was the use of human excrement (night soil) by other countries. If this is the case, were there ever studies showing there was no detrimental effect from this? Are all pathogens eliminated, or are we being exposed to new pathogens. Thank you, Whole Foods, for taking an open approach. I really do appreciate it.

paig292 says …

Linda, The short answer is that we are working on creating a dynamic list that will reflect all of the private label products that are manufactured or produced in China, and we expect to have it on our website next week. Now here’s the trickier part and we could use your feedback. We have taken a stand to be transparent at the ingredient level for our private label products. We are in the process of addressing the following challenges before we can make that happen: 1. Multiple ingredient foods. When an item contains a dozen different ingredients from different locations, disclosing country of origin for all is virtually impossible on a label. We are looking into things like primary ingredient disclosure on the label and then providing additional info on the web. 2. Ingredient sources change throughout seasons. One of our manufacturers may source flax seeds, for example, from one country during their growing season and then move the source to a different country, thus ensuring a continuous supply. How is this reflected on the label? We are interested in hearing what our customers want to know about the product’s origin and how we can best communicate this type of information. To be clear, this is a lot of work and change won’t happen instantaneously. But know that we are working on it and welcome your feedback. For questions on any private label product, email our team at privatelabel.customerservice@wholefoods.com

says …

Hi Karen: This is Joe with Whole Foods Market. To answer your questions about products from China, we do actually visit China, as do the auditors we work with. Take a look at the “Sources you can trust” link above for more information about how we review products from China. Thanks!

la says …

I personally do not want to buy anything food from China, labeled organic or not - but I must commend Whole Foods for properly labeling it so I can make that decision.

Michelle says …

A member of a celiac mailing list mentioned he would be writing here to express his outrage at gluten free products not being located in one location throughout the store. I see he commented here already. I would like to express my support for Whole Foods Market maintaining the gluten free items in the same location as other non-gluten free items of the same type. There are numerous naturally gluten free products (such as just about everything in the produce departments and most things in the seafood/meat departments) available. Lumping all of these items in one location simply does not make sense. I would like to thank Whole Foods Market for providing a list of gluten free (and gluten AND casein free) products on their website. This list enabled me to easily discover soups that fit my special dietary needs... something that has been a quite difficult task in the past! It was no great effort for me to look in the soup isle for the products identified in the gluten and casein free list. So, kudos to Whole Foods Market! Keep up the good work! And to those complaining about gluten free products not being in one section: use the special dietary list on the website. It's very helpful and really not a lot of work to track the items down in the store. Given the efforts we have to make at other groceries to find gluten free items you should be happy that Whole Foods Market provides a gluten free list custom to each store! Spread the love, not the hate!

Emmanuel says …

I'm a regular shopper at Whole Foods and was very disappointed , when I learned about Organics from China. There are many other places in Asia especially Southeast Asia where Whole Foods would have better control of the quality of organic foods produced. Please consider the fact that the USDA has lower the original standards of what an organic produce is and multiply that by 90% ; the remaining 10% is for the documentation of manure used to claim the certification for "organic" . I dont care about China's politics. I have been there twice and there are a lot of good things there , but I dont think having them mass produce organic foods for us is in our best interest.Whole Foods knows very well that many of the war chemicals(pesticides ect.) which have been banned here in the USA are not in other countries.I stopped drinking using wines from Chile when I found out years ago that they were using banned chemicals there.

JL says …

Wow! Whole Foods might be the only store with <i>integrity</i>. Like it or not, our economy is globalized and the food we eat comes from everywhere on the planet. The processors and sellers of food aren't legally required to tell you where it's from. (Your cupboard is probably full of food from China, Brazil, and other countries with which we trade.) If you don't want to buy food from China, you should shop at Whole Foods. They're just about the only ones who are being honest about it and putting "Made In" labels on food, so you make an informed decision. Regardless of where your food is from, "Certified Organic" is the best way to make sure it's safe.

Karen says …

I also would not buy from China, I have been there and sadly I do not trust the "yes this is organic" answer, I am not sure about the answer from the WF Rep..so are you saying that you do buy from China ( a few things) and what are those measures you use to help make your decision to purchase those items? Does someone actually go there and visit? Or is it strictly paper proof? Thanks.

wentzj says …

Hi Michael, This is Jamie from Whole Foods Market. Thanks for your comment. I can certainly see how it might be frustrating to adapt to a different store layout than you’re used to. I’d encourage you to contact your local store’s Team Leader with your suggestions. There is a list of all stores, including phone numbers and web links, at http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/list_stores.php. Also, did you know we offer store-specific product lists for gluten free products? Select your store from http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/specialdiets/ to download. Hope that helps!

Christine James says …

FYI I do not and I will not buy anything from China. Thank you to let us know about your organics produce are coming from this communist country! It sure surprise me and I am revolted; What's happened today with WHOLE FOOD integrity? I start to be one of your customer 17 years ago in South Austin, and I am very desapointed by your Inside Scoop about Organics from China... Christine James

Michael Thorn says …

I'm on the Board of a large Celiac Disease support/education group. (We run the largest gluten-free consumer event in North America.) Many members like Whole Foods Market but are very frustrated that they have to walk all of the aisles to find gluten-free items. All other health food and supermarket stores have sections for gf items. Shopping when you are a gf diet is work enough..why is it so much more work at WFM. Many people have told me that they just give up and shop elsewhere. How important are gf customers to WFM and when will they listen to our needs?

Jen says …

I rarely get involved with blogging, I usually just read what is going on........but the above comment made we want to stand by the side of Whole foods. This person obviously did not read the comments made by whole foods and put NO THOUGHT into their response, not to mention their spelling. The whole point being made is that whole foods is being honest about their products and open with information which is very hard to find these days. I personally do not buy products from China either and I appreciate Whole Foods for telling us what is going on. I am sorry the person behind the comment above is so negative.

David says …

Whole foods should have a motto : "Do as I say not as I do". Whole foods should say nothing about supporting local produce unless they themselves make more of an effort to do it. Whole foods is trying to promote local produce without actually physically doing it. Cashiers wear support local produce buttons, and there are countless signs abound the store stating the same thing. I shop in Washington state the land of apples. And I see that at least 75% of the apples are from foreign soil (I would like Whole Foods to comment on their carbon footprint). With the amount of produce Whole foods sells they could make a big impact on the small local farmers if they chose to buy from them before buying from overseas. I have seen the quality of Whole foods produce decline over the years. And as a private chef shopping at Whole foods almost daily I see the day by day changes. I am sad to see capitalism push Whole Foods in the wrong direction.

says …

Hi SL - The USDA’s National Organic Standards expressly prohibit the use of sewage sludge, or human excrement. Anyone growing organic produce to be sold in the US has to be certified to this standard. I’ll be posting a longer story about international organics tomorrow. Let me know if you still have any questions.

paig292 says …

David, I checked with our produce experts and here's what they had to say about your concerns. <em>Thanks for your comments. It sounds like we can improve the timing of our local marketing materials with the realities of supply. Late spring brings the lowest availability of local product in the Pacific Northwest – this is mainly due to the fact that the winter growing season feeds the spring harvest season. Right now the best local items are asparagus, Rhubarb, Basil (green house), and a limited supply of common herbs like parsley and cilantro. Late winter weather has delayed availability of more row crop vegetables that would normally be available at this time but supplies should improve almost weekly the further we move into summer. The apples currently available from Washington State are fruit that was harvested in October and have been held in controlled atmosphere storage since. Pink Lady, Red and Gold Delicious are the last varieties left in storage at this point in the year with an acceptable flavor and texture profile. Other varieties, such as Gala and Fuji don’t hold well so late in the season and are generally sold out for the year before new fruit starts coming in from the Southern Hemisphere in late spring and summer. We’ve got a talented produce team in the Pacific Northwest who are committed to satisfying and delighting our customers. Be on the lookout for local favorites throughout the summer and into the fall. Regards, Karen and James</em>

Linda says …

Is there a list that would tell me which Whole Foods Private Label products include ingredients from China?

Carla Greene says …

I wrote earlier regarding the "organic" issue of the foods you sell from China. My question is why was the list of your 365 brand products list noted with "Do Not Distribute"? There are more than a few items with China as the country of origin. Please let us all know who is certifying the authenticity of the organic label and how that process is done. We all want to support Whole Foods and continue to buy your products. Thank you.

Carla Greene says …

Linda, Yes there is a list.

paig292 says …

Carly, Hindsight being 20/20, we probably should have marked that document with “for internal use only” because that was our real intent. As I’m sure you can understand, a lot of the work that goes into creating a private label product is proprietary information. We certainly weren’t intending to hide anything from our customers about where our products are sourced. We are in the process of creating a list for the public that will clearly show the information you are requesting. This should be on our website next week. (The list you saw was quite old and outdated with incorrect information on it.) And, of course, our single ingredient products in the stores are clearly marked with country of origin. For the organic certification, please check out Joe Dickson’s post on “<a href="http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2008/06/is-organic-from-china-possible/" rel="nofollow">Is Organic From China Possible</a>?” He talks a lot about the certification aspects. Please feel free to contact our private label team at privatelabel.customerservice@wholefoods.com and they can provide you with information about any specific products.

Carla Greene says …

Thank you for the update. I will be looking for the new list. I appreciate you addressing this issue and most importantly taking action to let us know all the sources of your 365 private label products.

Jessica Duffy says …

I just can't get away from the feeling that providing everything that everyone wants at every minute is just not sustainable. So, the best quality edamame at the best price was from China (over other international suppliers or the U.S.). But, is that still true after you factor in auditors, testing, shipping, etc., not to mention the effects on our carbon footprint (especially in a country bringing at least one new coal-powered plant on line every week). And also, isn't it better to allow market pressures for organics to increase our own national organic acreage? Whole Foods was instrumental to the huge growth of organic agriculture in this country. I consider it our responsibility to continue to help grow this industry that is so important to the future safety of food production, the environment, and energy.

Concerned Citizen says …

There are many other issues to consider when purchasing goods from a Country such as China. Quality of food (for both human and animal consumption), China's treatment of its citizens, China's treatment of animals, and China's treatment of the environment seem to be among some of the top concerns for many people. Setting the food standards aside for a moment is this a country that Whole Foods would like to be affiliated with? Pollution, death, and human rights violations are not key words that many relate too Whole Foods Market. In all honesty the way that it appears to Customers and Team Members is that Whole Foods has made yet another move to become completely corporate... putting the bottom line first.

Concerned Citizen says …

Well said Jessica. I couldn't agree more. Furthermore this decision does not agree with WFM's 5th core value. "We care about our Communities and Environement"

ellen.prager says …

I just wanted to comment to Michael Thorne's comment(who is on the Board of a Celiac Disease support/education group) about having Whole Foods Market gluten free sections. In response to customer requests, there are several Los Angeles area stores who not only have gluten free sections in the store, but also offer gluten free events where customers are educated on the subject and are given an opportunity to taste various gluten free items throughout the store. Individual stores respond to customer concerns and will lend assistance with their dietary needs.

Shawn says …

Although I agree that Whole foods can get organic foods from China... How about the whole picture that is China. I would like to know how come Whole foods (which is great company) can help to support a country that suppresses a smaller country like that of tibet along with the people in China. In what ways is Whole Foods trying to change the mistreatment (animal and human)? I really support Whole Foods, but would like to know more. thanks. (I used to live in China for nine years).

Elizabeth says …

I have read the information on WF standards, but I am troubled regarding the reliance on QAI for inspections and verifications. I wrote to them asking about follow up with their producers and issues regarding organic food from China and got a boiler plate, non-answer. In reviewing their certification and follow-up processes--at least as much that I could find, it appears that once a supplier/grower has filed the appropriate paperwork that is it. There does not appear to be any follow-up, on-site certification, or verification of sourcing.

Elizabeth says …

One other point, what about unpackaged or loose produce? Is it labeled as to where it was grown? Since it is not specifically identified as the WFM brand, where does it fall in terms of identifying its source?

says …

@Elizabeth Most all of our produce has signage that indicates its origin. We do our best to ensure our customers can make informed decisions about their food.

Deann says …

I personally do not want to buy any food from China. Organic included. I would also like larger labels on food items so I know where ALL the ingredients come from. If it's winter flax that comes from Vietnam, I want to know. If it's fall flax that comes from Argentina, I want to know. Please make bigger labels so that Whole Fools can have true transparency. I pay more for food at Whole Foods, and I expect more from Whole Foods.

Melissa says …

I'd like to respond to David's comment: "I shop in Washington state the land of apples. And I see that at least 75% of the apples are from foreign soil (I would like Whole Foods to comment on their carbon footprint). With the amount of produce Whole foods sells they could make a big impact on the small local farmers if they chose to buy from them before buying from overseas.I have seen the quality of Whole foods produce decline over the years." I agree completely with this comment. It's ironic that I came to this blog to post the same sentiments by using the example of how at my local store in San Francisco, California, all of the apples are "organic" monstrosities (why they are so huge? I just don't get it) that seem to have a waxy film on them..interesting...and are shipped in from...drum roll..Washington State. I am a long time shopper and can't figure out why Whole Foods is shipping in apples from Washington when there are plenty of local sources of delicious, organic, normal-sized apples that don't have a waxy film and don't cost $3 a piece. It's incredible that people in Washington State can't even support their own farmers - rather, we in California have to do it. How does this policy support "eat locally" again?

Jeanne Phillips says …

Beyond the organic ingredients, what about the non organic ingredients that come from China that might be used in all of the products made by other manufacturers that Whole Foods sells, who is checking these? While the organic ingredients that Whole Foods gets may be checked, who is checking or ensuring that your vendors are following the same standards with their organic and non organic ingredients? Many of the products sold at Whole Foods are not organic. Where do the ingredients come from? Thanks

Niki Tylor says …

Hello, I an avid shopper at WFM I am outraged to have found out that WFM is out sourcing to CHINA of all places!!! and NO it is not very CLEAR on the packaging it is a small place on the back and I was Soooo sad to see this. I had so much confidence in wfm and I am saying to wfm I will not be back for some time. I will go to my local PUBLIX and I didnt like going there but since they are starting GREENWISE I will give it a try.. Sorry whole foods but you have lost a very Good Customer who spends in 700+ a week....At WFM. NO More.

Samantha Gratt says …

If every body of water in China is polluted, so we are lead to believe, then how can anything grown in China be considered healthy, whether it is organic or not?

Nancy Andersson says …

I do not feel that you are up front with your customers about Chinese frozen vegetables. I cooked some frozen 365 whole foods organic edamame today. They smelled ROTTEN and tasted off. I then checked the package to see where they were from and learned that they were from China. I almost gagged. I will NEVER again buy your Chinese poor quality produce. EVER. Please listen to your customers. It makes no sense to fly spinach or edamame from China. It isn't good and this is totally hypocritical. BUY LOCAL!

Vicky says …

Please post a list or link with all products sourced from china, even if one minor ingredient. I agree with others above. I don't trust food from China and feel their track record for regulation is unacceptable. In addition, the environmental impact of shipping food is substantial, poluting our oceans and air. It's one thing to truck produce along the west coast, but another to ship it half way around the world. For fresh produce, I suggest modifying your choice based on the seasons. If you want blueberries in February, you will only encourage WF to ship them from Chile. Let's vote with our pocketbooks. Boycott Chinese ingredients!

ThriveAnne says …

I'm a huge fan of Organic Food, but not of organic food from China. Here's an article from the Organic Consumer's Association which explains the issue without bias. http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_3962.cfm After weighing the words of Whole Foods reps, who, I have no doubt are doing their best, I still choose to be an avid label reader and will NOT purchase food from China. (Remember it takes 20 years of transition to be a true "organic" brand...does China have that time frame in place?) There's some question to the integrity of the Organic label in the US and we know that regulations are in place, but not always followed. Put that same concept and China where the growers are self-regulted, and I have little confidence in their ability to produce a quality organic product. As consumers, we only know what we know..unless we take the time to investigate, and even then we're still taking the word of the growers. Here's a suggestion: Maybe the distributor should sample test the product batches before putting their name on it?

Alex Sanchez says …

There is an investigative story done on this subject from ABC (Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ31Ljd9T_Y) that explains why products from China cannot be reliably certified organic. Quality Assurance International is Whole Food's organic certification company and in an official statement they confirm that "QAI has not certified any products in China". They rely on an unassociated certifier on the farms in China! On Whole Foods comment that "The reality nowadays is that sourcing high quality organic products has gone global", I honestly expected more from WF since I'm also paying more here. Our nation produces very little these days in the age of global outsourcing but the one thing we still do very well is grow our own food. The fact that so many of Whole Foods organic products are borught in from outside the country with a very BIG carbon footprint is just sad sad sad. Are American farmer's food prices too high for Whole Foods? I am definitely not seeing any of the savings from getting organics from China passed to the consumers. In any case, I think this all flies in the face of the companies promotion of 'Buy Locally Grown'. I will stop shopping at Whole Foods and buy my produce locally at farmer's markets and just learn to eat whatever is in season. Imagine that concept.

Allen says …

We just saw the news on this and are quite concerned that some of the items from Whole foods come from China. Many of our friends who have been shopping at Whole foods are going to cut down or stop shopping at whole foods altogether. This is a matter of trust and Whole Foods has yet to make a public announcement to their customers. I agree with many some of the other comments that food from China can not be properly evaluated. The cost would be quite high and thus not economically justifiable for Whole foods. Occasional inspection will not do the job. The problem is the system and standards in China that has created many of the issues we have seen in the past. Thus I would like to ask why Whole foods is willing to risk it all specially in this day and time where we need to support our local businesses.

Reed says …

Sad to say, many of us do not trust the Chinese to deliver uncontaminated products. This is due to poor ethical and moral standards in that country in general. And it would seem that many of us do not trust Whole Foods to monitor the Chinese either. And for those who know anything about the USDA, we certainly do not trust them to oversee third party inspectors in a foreign country. I think someone else said this, but the "just trust us" response is not well received on this end. Surely you folks can do better than that. In any case the shameless price gouging keeps me out of your store most of the time anyway! I am so grateful that we have another option in Colorado.

dave says …

It is nice to see that wf is honest about where the product comes from but i do not believe for one minute that they can not find framers in the usa to supple them.

Andrea Reese says …

Why not support local farmers instead? Especially in California. It doesn't make sense and harms both the environment as well as the local economy to outsource produce, ship them in from other countries and add yet more carbon into the atmosphere, don't you think??

Shopper says …

WF does a better job of checking out their suppliers than 90% of the businesses selling organic food, but they are still a business. They want to make money, so they make choices that meet at the crossroads of satisfying the most customers seeking organic products and turning a profit. It's a miracle that they label the food origin at all, and if you can't be bothered to read the label, caveat emptor. Since it seems to be so difficult for everyone to read the labels, even the small print, and consider where their food comes from before they buy it, and since all those customers still want organic, good quality food at a price close to what we pay for the farm-subsidied GMO garbage that you find at Ralphs, I have a crazy idea: GROW YOUR OWN. That is the only way you're ever going to know exactly where your food comes from, and the only way avoid a business is lying to you to get your money.

David Antonovich says …

I am discusted to find out that I have been eating produce from china (365 frozen vegetables)..even if it is considered organic. I do not trust any product from china.. I will be returning all my frozen food I purchased from Whole Foods that is from China. I rather pay more $ for organic produce from USA.

Katy says …

I like whole food market alot because they have lots of organic food and vegetable from everywhere.

cherie says …

I think that what WF is doing is slowly introducing back into their stores a substantial amount of foods from China. This person, Jim, sounds deliberately nebulous when he says some foods may be introduced in some stores. No doubt, Whole Foods is waiting for this whole thing to blow over so they can continue as they were before. There is a huge market segment of the population that does not read the fine print. Tis is what they depend on. Shame on you Jim. You're very good at the spin.

Andy Chan says …

I am really disappointed to learn that Whole Food is sourcing from China. It is a very dangerous to source anything from China lest alone organic food. I do not trust that China is ready.

says …

@Andy Thank you for your concern about the quality of the products we are sourcing. We understand your interest in providing yourself and your family with only the highest standard in organic products. For information on the quality foods we are sourcing from China, I encourage you to take a look at this information from the website "The R.O.C.K." (Reaching Out with Communication &amp; Knowledge.) This article should dissolve your fears. I've also copied the link below for an archived blog of ours discussing the viability of organics from China. Again, thank you for reaching out. http://rock/?p=968 http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2008/06/is-organic-from-china-possible/

Nicole Sharratt says …

I am researching stores that stock there shelves with local products. I have shopped at Whole foods a handful of times. I don't want to buy products from China. period. I am willing to spend more money, but I am disappointed that Whole foods, of all places, imports from China!

says …

@Nicole Thank you for reaching out. We understand your concern. For information on the quality foods we are sourcing from China, I encourage you to take a look at this information from the website “The R.O.C.K.” (Reaching Out with Communication &amp; Knowledge.) This article should dissolve your fears. I’ve also copied the link below for an archived blog of ours discussing the viability of organics from China. Again, thank you for reaching out. http://rock/?p=968 http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2008/06/is-organic-from-china-possible/

Joe Diaz says …

I watched a disturbing report from ABC news about the source of your organic foods from China. Over the last ten years,I have spent thousands of dollars on your products. It is a slap in the face to learn that you sell supposedly organic products from China. I will never step into your stores again!!!!!!

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