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Inside Scoop: Organics from China

By Paige Brady, June 4, 2008  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Paige Brady
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.
Category: Food Issues




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?
06/04/2008 10:31:57 AM CDT
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!
06/04/2008 10:32:57 AM CDT
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
06/04/2008 11:31:05 AM CDT
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.
06/04/2008 12:14:06 PM CDT
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.
06/04/2008 2:15:34 PM CDT
dicksonj 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!
06/04/2008 2:16:28 PM CDT
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.
06/04/2008 3:54:16 PM CDT
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.
06/04/2008 3:59:10 PM CDT
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.
06/05/2008 8:08:57 AM CDT
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!
06/05/2008 10:59:26 AM CDT
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.
06/05/2008 3:07:47 PM CDT
dicksonj 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.
06/05/2008 4:50:34 PM CDT
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.
06/05/2008 5:17:55 PM CDT
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>
06/05/2008 5:18:57 PM CDT
Linda says ...
Is there a list that would tell me which Whole Foods Private Label products include ingredients from China?
06/05/2008 8:56:12 PM CDT
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.
06/05/2008 9:31:13 PM CDT
Carla Greene says ...
Linda, Yes there is a list.
06/06/2008 10:51:58 AM CDT
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
06/06/2008 1:14:48 PM CDT
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.
06/06/2008 1:16:12 PM CDT
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.
06/08/2008 1:18:37 PM CDT
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.
06/09/2008 4:54:37 PM CDT
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.
06/10/2008 11:21:37 AM CDT
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"
06/10/2008 6:09:03 PM CDT
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.
06/12/2008 8:17:41 PM CDT
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).
06/18/2008 7:36:34 PM CDT