Whole Story

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Is Organic from China Possible?

Update: June 13, 2010

Since I wrote this post about two years ago, we’ve had a few changes and I wanted to make sure anyone reading this is up to speed on current information. As of this summer (2010), we are no longer sourcing any of our Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value food products from China EXCEPT for frozen edamame (shelled and unshelled, organic and conventional). This means that out of more than 2,000 365 Everyday Value products right now, only ten are from China. These products include tea and frozen vegetables. We will be selling through the remaining stock of six of those over the summer, and the edamame will be the only one remaining at that time. I want to be really clear that we didn’t stop sourcing from China because of quality or food safety concerns. As I explain in the post below, we have always had great confidence in our vendor partners in China, and we have taken great steps – including visiting farms and processing facilities ourselves, in addition to organic certification -- to verify that those suppliers have the same level of integrity and commitment to quality as the rest of our partners across the world. Our move to other sources is simply that through a routine bidding process, we found several suppliers in other countries, including the U.S., that offered the same or better quality at better prices. This was primarily a business decision – changing vendors was a good decision for our customers right now. As mentioned, we will continue to source edamame from China because we are not able to find the same high quality edamame for the same price anywhere else. (In order to provide our customers with a choice, we also stock a premium, domestic frozen edamame from Columbia River Organics, a family-owned farm in Washington State.) While some of our customers have questioned our sourcing from China, ultimately this was a business decision based on maintaining or improving both the quality and price of our private label products. It’s possible that we will source more products from China again in the future. The bottom line is that beyond quality and price, we give our customers many choices in the products we offer and where they are sourced. Another important clarification: it has always been our policy and practice to clearly label fresh produce with its country of origin. While we do not purchase fresh produce from China for national distribution, in some circumstances stores may bring in Chinese products such as edamame, ginger, shiitake mushroom and garlic. For example, in the Vancouver market items with origins in Asia are very common and in high demand. Product of China may be among our offerings in select markets such as Vancouver BC. Again, there is always country of origin labeling by all fresh produce. We appreciate all of your feedback. Read on for more details.

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Original Post

I spend more than half my work time thinking about, researching and talking about organic food. As part of my job as Quality Standards and Organic Programs Coordinator, I work with our stores and suppliers to help them understand and follow the National Organic Standards, to ensure that what they're selling as organic truly is. I also work with non-profit organizations, certifiers and others to support organic agriculture, and I carefully follow the USDA's National Organic Program and their ongoing work on the standard. Given all my work with organics, the Whole Story Blog powers-that-be asked me to answer one of the more perplexing questions that's been floating around lately: Can organic food from China truly be organic? The short answer is "yes, it can," but the long answer is far more complex and interesting. Let me take a few minutes to lay out some of the basic issues around organic agriculture in China, go over just what "organic" means in the US (or any country), talk to some leading organic experts and certifiers, and then let you decide whether organics from China are truly legit. News stories about products from China have been largely negative over the past year: Dog food tainted with toxic melamine, fake pharmaceuticals, toys with lead paint, contaminated crops... All of these very serious safety issues have raised serious red flags about the quality of everything coming out of China. Shoppers, retailers, food makers and the media have all wondered: "If pollution is this rampant, and oversight is this lax, how can we trust anything grown or made in China?" (Read a point by point response to a very misleading WJLA news story from May of 2008.) With organic food, the answer is complicated, but there are number of reasons we at Whole Foods Market feel good about our organic private label products from China. You can read more about some of the specific ways we make sure our organic private label products from China meet our standards here. Read on past the fold for more information about how U.S. law applies to organics grown outside the U.S., and what some experts see as opportunities to strengthen the system. Organic 101 Some quick background: Before 2002, there were no national organic standards. Some states had their own organic regulations, but there was no nationally accepted legal definition of the term. As the organic market grew, so did the potential for fraud and the need for consumer protection. In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which directed the USDA to create a regulation to define exactly what "organic" meant on food sold in the U.S. Thus the National Organic Standards were born. The USDA created this standard over the next ten years or so, advised by the National Organic Standards Board, (NOSB) a multi-stakeholder group made up of growers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumer representatives, retailers, and other organic experts. Through a transparent and public process of meetings and hearings around the country, the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) and the NOSB developed a thorough and comprehensive standard that governs how organic food is grown, raised and processed, and how it's certified, overseen and marketed. This standard is still managed by the NOP and advised by the NOSB, who meet about twice a year to work on the standard and receive input from the public. Anyone who wants to sell food as organic in the U.S. must be certified by one of the USDA's accredited third-party certifiers. These certifiers are approved and supervised through a process called accreditation, by which the NOP audits and inspects the certifiers to make sure they're enforcing the standard appropriately. International Organics One popular misconception out there is that organic food grown in another country is grown according to that country's rules (or lack of rules). That's just not true. Anyone growing food that's going to be sold as organic in the U.S. is required to follow the U.S. standards and be certified by a USDA accredited certifier. A number of internationally-based certifiers are accredited by the USDA, and many U.S.-based certifiers have employees on the ground in other countries. To help understand just how certification works on the ground in China, I talked to Jeff See, Executive Director of The Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), one of the major U.S. certifiers working in China. "We follow the same system anywhere in the world. There are language differences, but we use translators and native speakers." Given the recent attention to pollution and food safety issues in China, See says they've strengthened their work in China. "Since 2005 we've really stepped up our oversight in China. It's misinformation that the whole country is unable to be certified because of pollution. It's a very large country, and there are parts that are largely unpolluted." A few of the experts I spoke to pointed out that it's ironic that China is now so polluted, given that China once was home to one of the oldest strongest ecological agricultural traditions in the world. "As the Buddha said, all truth must be paradox," says Joe Smillie, Senior Vice President at Quality Assurance International, one of the leading organic certifiers in the U.S. "I've always believed that China was the original homeland of organics. The Chinese peasant throughout history is one of the best organic eco farmers that the world has seen." That peasant ecological farming tradition was largely pushed aside as the rising population in China's cities caused immense pressure to increase food production starting in the 1960s. "The move to increase food production dumped a lot of urea (from nitrogen fertilizers) and other pollutants into the countryside," notes Smillie. "Nitrogen fertilizers increase your production at great environmental cost. A lot of China has been compromised, but at the core, that peasant spirit is alive and well in some areas." Chuck Benbrook, Chief Scientist at The Organic Center, agrees. "I think the Chinese were growing and consuming high quality organic food several centuries before we were in the US, so I think high quality organic food can definitely be grown in China. The real concern now is widespread contamination of soil, air and water with pollutants and industrial chemicals. NOP standards provide some guidance regarding how farmers and certifiers in China are supposed to address environmental contaminants, but questions persist regarding how effectively they are doing so." Another concern with organic production in China is that Chinese culture just doesn't allow for the type of transparency that business in the US has gotten used to. Benbrook says that here in the US "there is a high degree of cultural, professional, economic and corporate pressure to follow the rules. In China, many people don't feel the same the way about government rules. It's more accepted to tip one's hat to the rules but do what you need to do. That's what worries me." "Some of the key challenges are that the infrastructure of organic certification requires a level of transparency and both planned and unplanned spot inspections; certification also requires an interface with government and access to government data, and that's where China becomes a difficult and challenging environment" says Bob Scowcroft, Executive Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "The government doesn't handle implied mistrust very well, and that's one basis of organic certification. Just showing up and saying ‘Surprise! I want to see your garden' is a difficult proposition in China, given that it's half the world away for US-based certifiers." These challenges to certification in China make certification more difficult for the certifiers, and the integrity of this process depends on the integrity of USDA's oversight of the certifiers. USDA Accreditation Many in the organic community feel that the USDA's accreditation process - the process by which they oversee and review certifiers - needs to be more public and open in order to ensure that the USDA is enforcing the standard. While the certifiers I spoke to said that the accreditation process keeps them on their toes, others said that they'd feel more confident in the system if it were more transparent. "Considering the resources our country has given them, they're doing a good job, and I've seen them make us make a lot of changes since the implementation of the standard, very good changes," says See. "They have shadowed us in China and visited several of our operations in China as part of that accreditation, and we've been told they will be coming back again this year. They have found some points that we have to improve in China, and we are." "They come to our offices and can go through any file they want, a long list of things they have to do, based on ISO 61 guidelines, which are strict international guidelines that tell them how to accredit," says Smillie. "They have to check us out and make sure we're doing the right thing, and you have to show improvement. You have to really dance quick or you're gone." Smillie noted that USDA accreditation officials had also shadowed QAI's inspectors on international audits. Scowcroft believes that the USDA could do more to be transparent and open the accreditation process to the public: "This was never intended to be a black hole, it's a public private partnership, and the USDA has done little to explain how they spot check certifiers and to what extent they enforce any infractions they do discover." "I haven't seen the NOP invest time and political capital needed to enhance the accreditation process in the ways that are going to be necessary to bring the process in a country like China or India up to US standards," said Benbrook. The recently passed Farm Bill urged appropriators in Congress to allocate nearly $2 million a year in additional funding for the National Organic Program, and I hope that this chunk of this funding will go towards stronger, better and more public accreditation work at NOP. More resources and funding can only help the program, which struggles to oversee organic agriculture in the US on a limited budget. Within the verification community, everyone's trying to do their best with the resources they have" notes Scowcroft. "But there's a question as to whether the resources they have match the incredible magnitude of the growing organic market." The NOP also just launched a new online reading room where they are posting documents related to certification and accreditation work. This site will help the organic community keep a close eye on the USDA's work and directly review NOP accreditation documents. Any member of the public can now review NOP's accreditation reports for any certifier online. Scrutiny is a good thing. Organic certification in China obviously raises some serious questions. While there's definitely a system of oversight in place, pollution and lack of transparency in China is just cause to look very closely at all food from China, organic or otherwise. As I mentioned, we've gone to great lengths to make sure the organic private label products we import from China meet our own standards and the National Organic Standards. Our buyers and auditors visit the farms and facilities we buy from, and we have created testing protocols that test for pesticide and heavy metal residues. Our quality systems and test results suggest that the organic certification process is working well for these products. So, to (longwindedly) answer the question, "Can organic products from China truly be organic?" We've found that they can, but we've also found that the question requires and deserves lots of scrutiny. I expect that this same question will be receiving a lot of attention in the coming months from organic shoppers, the media, non-profit groups and the USDA, and this increased scrutiny and accountability will hopefully lead to improved trust in organic products from the U.S. and around the globe. But, in the meantime, we at Whole Foods Market aren't waiting. We've been taking extra steps to make sure our organic products from all over the world are organic, and now we're launching a new level of transparency about our products, where we get them, and how evaluate them. We'll be updating our website with more info about in the coming weeks, and keeping you updated via this blog.

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131 comments

Comments

CDH says …

You might promise the following: "Cattle/Buffalo No antibiotics — ever No supplemental growth hormones No animal byproducts in feed Range raised for at least 2/3 of the animal's life" but I don't see melamine and other dangerous ingredients listed there. I don't see that Whole Foods requires an animal raised in China to have access to clean drinking water (water that would be fit for human consumption)-and why shouldn't U.S. consumers expect to have complete information about their food's growing/living conditions when "The Chinese government has declared more than half of the rivers in the country too polluted to drink from"?(source: http://www.naturalnews.com/023593.html) and we've had contaminated toothpaste, animal food, etc. from them? There might be a time for Whole Foods to buy from China but now is not that time. I'm deeply saddened that I can no longer support Whole Foods.

Paula Kaltman says …

I love whole foods, and I know many of my colleagues LOVE the market as well. WE would LOVE to see a Whole foods open up somewhere in northern/western Morris county, NJ, such as Denville or Randolph area. thanks much, Paula

Regina says …

There is ZERO chance I will buy Chinese food products, whether or not they are organic. They have had thousands ill from human waste in food, pet food poisoning, and other pitiful violations of healthy food practices. It is NOT worth the systemic risk that China poses.

Stan Humblebutt says …

At this pivotal point in our country's economy, why is one of the most ethical businesses in America even asking this question. Oh, yeah, the stock holders. This is an obvious example of how even companies like Whole Foods are dedicating their efforts to the profitability of their company and the returns of it's stock holders, instead of minding the health and well being of it's customers. Food from China is cheaper for many reasons. One of which is a trade deficit that that makes American labor less valuable. There is ZERO chance I will buy Chinese food products, whether or not they are organic. They have had thousands ill from human waste in food, pet food poisoning, and other pitiful violations of healthy food practices. It is NOT worth the systemic risk that China poses.

JL says …

The most ironic part of all of this is that the Chinese government has been known to block food from the United States, because it doesn't meet their standards. Our homes are filled with products and food from China. There's a good chance that the sheets you slept in last night and the towels you dried off with this morning were made in China along with the juice your had for breakfast. The restaurants where we eat very often get their food (indirectly) from China. You probably never thought to ask, "Where is that catfish farm?" In fact, last year we imported about <a href="http://www.hhs.gov/news/facts/importsfromchina.html" rel="nofollow">$320 billion</a> worth of food (lots of fish) and stuff from China. Yes, some of it was toxic, but so were a lot of our domestic products and foods. Remember the school beef recalls? I buy food that is "Certified Organic" because I know that it's scutinized to the best possible standards, regardless of where it's from. I think the xenophobic attitude people have towards the Chinese and their products is the result of irational fear and racism egged on by the media. Like everyting else in the news, "dangerous things from China" have been over-sensationalized just to get our attention. As far as I'm concerned, "Certified Organic" from China is just as safe as food from Idaho, Brazil, California, Timbuktu or any other place. I trust Whole Foods to provide the best organic and natural products for the best prices wherever in the world they get them.

Robin says …

Yes, China "organics" needs to be explained. As does Whole Foods's relationship with the notorious green-washing corporation Kimberly Clark, who has time and time again been associated with, not only Whole Foods, but devastating our planet by sourcing virgin fiber from North Americas Boreal Forest. While there is nothing on their shelves from Kimberly Clark, (Kleenex Tissue's parent company), they continue to use them in their corporate offices. The term "greenwasher" should become synonymous with Whole Foods. I pledge NO alliance with this fortune 500 corporation until they stop this greenwashing and become true stewards of our planet, not only on the shelves, but in their every day way of life.

humberto says …

customer service is the best. better then ralphs market.

PP says …

Whole Foods came out with their premium body care line seal, perhaps a similar seal should be applied to food to distinguish between an ecofake and a REAL organic product. Vertical agriculture is addressing this. Crops are being grown vertically inside high rise office buildings. The idea is that food is not truly organic if there are contaminents in the air and water, unless grown indoors. Perhaps India and China could try verticial agriculture and have their products certified. http://www.verticalfarm.com/ As a consumer, I want to see pictures of the farms growing my organic food and the overarching location. Is the farm using the same river a factory is dumping their pollution in? It would help to have a team of investigators go to these farms, check out the local scene and put a stamp on their product indictating approval of the local environment the food is being grown in. If customers a buying products with such a seal, I hope we can improve the quality of the environment in India and China. For example, Vandana Shiva seems to be doing authenic organic farm work in India. I would feel more inclined to buy her organic products. http://www.navdanya.org/organic/production.htm

Sandy Strossen says …

How far down does Whole Foods plan to go? I used to shop there ALL the time - and we spend a couple thousand dollars a month on groceries. I rarely go anymore, shopping at farmers' markets, health food stores, and the organic sections of smaller grocery stores. Whole Foods is squeezing everyone else out, including meat workers. Produce from China? Are you freaking kidding me?

mary allison says …

i highly doubt that ther will ever be such a thing as organic food from china that is ACTUALLY organinc! if there ever is such a discovery then i think that my family and i wil be very happy!

Vigg says …

THanks for clarifying the 365 brand. There were many questions in my mind because the standards for Organic have changed in depth and breadth over many years. SPecific to China, I do not purchase products made in China ... from WalMart Nor Whole Foods. I would prefer to support products and food produced in the USA. Can someone explain organically grown in Chile? I believe it is one of the few countries that continues the use of DDT on crops.

Caile says …

I can certainly see where people's frustration with both Whole Foods as well as with China comes from. Yes, Whole Foods is a corporation and much of what they do could fall under the typical corporate "evils" that we tend to think of. But they also do a lot for both the Americans that work in their stores as well as the world. Their Whole Foods Foundation is a great example of that, and really educated me about microloans and my ability to contribute to small families. Back to the point at hand. I think it is really brave of Whole Foods to embrace Chinese goods while everyone else is running away. I imagine there are several steps of quality assurance to ensure that the produce and products we import from China meet the US Consumer's demands. Not only does help to encourage a change in Chinese practices for their exports, but it also benefits us in receiving prodects of high quality for a cheaper price. Further, the demand for high quality organic produce far exceeds the US, Canada and South America's ability to produce. Where exactly then do all of these "I will never buy from China" people plan on getting their own goods? I think that the fact is, as of now we simply cannot have everything that we want. Inexpensive, locally-grown, organic, year-round, etc...there is nothing that is going to fit each of our demands as a consumer. The way I see it, we can do the research (and that involves more than relying on American Media, not exactly known for its unbiased approach) and enlighten ourselves in an attempt to make the best decisions possible. For me, that includes buying select products from China and doing something that no longer seems to come easy to Americans, but putting trust in another race and culture. If the same does not apply to you, so be it, but at least try to do a little more research instead of falling prey to fear-based xenophobia.

Matt says …

I found this blog topic to be really disturbing. I can't believe Whole Foods would even consider purchasing ANYTHING from China, let alone food products. I have been very distraught lately to discover so many of your products are made or grown in China (food, kitchen accessories, clothing, etc.) I really hope you reconsider purchasing any more foods from China.

Brian says …

There are a billion people in China. Out of the billion people there are some that have bad food practices. I have faith in whole foods that out of those billion people in china they will find the highest quality organic foods. Its a little bit prejudice to say out of those 1 billion people none of them can produce high quailty food. Also at whole foods you do have choice.

Susan says …

I'm wary of "organic" foods from China. After all the pet food,toy,etc,recalls--I don't see China as having a "good neighbor" policy towards us/US. There's also the human rights record and the Tibet issue. So I'm boycotting China as much as I can. Besides,I think the Columbia River Organics are great!

Carol in Colorado says …

I will never buy food from China, I am angry about the whole Nafta thing,our officials tell "us" we need to cut back on fuel and then they have food shipped thousands of miles and thousands of gallons of fuel. Something stinks here.I truly believe if we all ate only local foods or grown in the United States we would not be seeing all these salmonella outbreaks in melons and tomatoes,the foreign countries do not have the facilities to have a clean product.I am truly angry about the whole thing and refuse to buy foreign foods.

green says …

Not only does China make it difficult to verify the safety of organic food grown there, but anything made there that comes to the USA is questionable. Politically and socially, China does not hold the same values as the West. Engaging China economically will not change the oppressive stranglehold on the population there. Does WFM feel good about selling products made in China? I guess if making a profit is the most important thing in WFM's current thinking, then selling products from China must feel great. WFM needs to really think about this one and decide what is most important. Profit, or safety to the consumer?

revolted says …

I'll say it here too. Get one of the $10million loans that WF is offering and start growing food here in the U.S.A. Better still use the money you spend at WF to plant a garden at you house and don't spend money at any market. This is how to get any company to do better, don't spend your money there. As far as China goes around 70% of all things sold in stores come from a country other than the U.S.A. a large portion of that percentage is China. Why? Higher profit margin!!!!! Just try to open a store that sells only made in the U.S.A products, you might not have a big selection of products but I bet you would make money. Plenty of people are sick of not enough made in the U.S.A. products, food or otherwise, so stop talking about it and do something. Pier on Imports they are a large, sucessfull company and they prodly adveritse that they sell imports. Why? Because the American consumer is brainwashed into thinking that Made in the U.S.A. somehow equales lesser quality, or whatever trinket they desire is not made in the U.S.A. This is called the trade deficit, that word (deficit) seems to be the new stardard for America how far in debt can we go?

Joan Alcorn says …

When organic produce is available in the US, it is an insult to have to read labels to make sure the product is not from China. Many of us are willing to pay more for US organics. If WF is buying Chinese produce because it is a cost factor, then I question the original founding WF philosophy, integrity and authenticy of its standards.

Rachael says …

A few points: 1) If I wanted to buy organic goods from China, I could go to Walmart and do so. Why would I pay Whole Foods prices for it? 2) I am not xenophobic. However, I do not like to buy from China and avoid it as much as I practically can. I do not like the trade deficit. I do not like giving more power to a country that holds so much of our national debt. And I have serious doubts about why their stuff is cheaper. It's not magic - there is a price. Just not one that we're currently paying. (Unless you count US farmers as "we", of course...) 3) As a typical Whole Foods customer, I'm not only white, female, in my 40's, and upper middle class - but I also listen to lots of NPR. There was a show recently on Chinese factories and how they fool the foreign inspectors with things like shadow factories. It sounds like the aftermarket testing that WF does can likely weed out non-organic products, but it still does not verify fair-trade practices, or even basic human decency. 4) FYI - I read or heard somewhere that the carbon footprint of food is not so simple as "buy locally". Apparently, apples grown in New Zealand can have a smaller carbon footprint than local produce, due to higher efficiency in agriculture, or something like that.

JT says …

The two main statements that concern me, a conscious consumer, are below: 1. "I work with our stores and suppliers to help them understand and follow the National Organic Standards..." Who cares about how you evangelize to the stores. That is spreading propaganda about the falsely advertised organic brand. 2. "With organic food, the answer is complicated, but there are number of reasons we at Whole Foods Market feel good about our organic private label products from China. You can read more about some of the specific ways we make sure our organic private label products from China meet our standards here." How can you "FEEL GOOD" about this? This gives me no confidence that the standards you link to are actually being audited if it's just a 'feeling." Plus that document is a bunch of words without any rigorous audit practice that has accountability. As American consumers we have to stop being ambivalent to corporations who abuse the trust we have in them. I trust Whole Foods to provide good food and not pull scams like California Blend veggies that are made in China. This is not an error by the graphic design department people. I feel like Fast Food Nation for organic products. Who can go to China and find out for sure and bring back some hardcore data? Does that matter, it's from China. I agree with the other conscious consumers, we do not want products from China or other countries where cheap labor trumps expensive shipping costs to get a broccoli to the table. Step up and use the passionate farmers here in the U.S. Whole Foods - A Subsidiary of China. JT

DeceptiveWF says …

What WF is losing site of is that their customers are going to be most upset for being deceived. Regardless of your stand on products from China, marking a product with a US stamp of approval (USDA Organic) leads the consumer to believe that the product is in fact from the US. If WF had taken out large POP (Point of Purchase) displays showcasing that the "organic" food was from China then they would not have this backlash. Of course they also would not have had as many sales. So the motivation for deception calls into question WF's integrity. Yes, they are a corporation with shareholders. And yes, they do have a lot of good programs for the benefit of all. But it is a classic error or a corporation to forget why they have enough success to have shareholders and great worldly programs. Without the customer, you are nothing. Deceive the customer and watch your precious stock do a serious dive. In these current economic times, the extra money spent for something like a supposedly organic product really matters. This is the worst time for WF to have made this error.

says …

JT - Thanks for your comment. I appreciate and share your concerns about organic products. Let me take few minutes to talk about some of the issues you raised. First off, I care very deeply about how I “evangelize” to the stores. The USDA organic standard is a very strict, comprehensive and detailed regulation, and helping our team members and suppliers understand its requirements is very important to me and the company. I’m not “spreading propaganda;” I’m actually giving people the tools they need to make sure that what we’re selling as organic is truly organic under the USDA standard. As far as “feeling good” about organics from China, I don’t consider “feeling good” to be a substitute for stringent audits conducted by very serious inspectors. I “feel good” about these products because the audits have gone well, and we’re supporting some of the few farmers in China who are keeping that country’s ecological farming traditions alive. As I said above and in the pages linked above, the products we’re importing from China truly are organic; the document describes our rigorous audit system in great detail. And as for “California Blend,” this is a long standing culinary term that describes a mix of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. A quick scan of any online grocery website will show that there are many brands, organic and non-organic, who offer this same mix. I don’t expect that all of our shoppers will be comfortable with products from China or other countries, for whatever personal reasons may motivate them. There are plenty of fresh and frozen products in our stores from the US and all over the world; please feel free to choose whatever suits you.

Brenda Allen says …

Whole Foods just lost my business. Period.

JL says …

It's incredibly naive to say that you wont shop somewhere, because they sell food from China. You wont be able to buy food anywhere. Quaker Oats, Mars, Hormel, Del Monte, Pillsbury, Kellogg, Nabisco, Trader Joes, Tyson, Sun Maid, Post, Sunkist, and many more get food from China. Most have plants and factories there. If you're going to boycott China you're going to be hungry. Why is everyone so worried about China anyway? Where do we draw this line and how do we choose what countries are NOT OKAY? I can think of worse places than China to get food... I don't have any frozen broccoli, but my 365 Brand Organic Berry Blend clearly says MADE IN CHINA.

says …

Hi, DeceptiveWF! Thanks for your concern. I disagree that the USDA seal implies that the product was grown in the US; the USDA seal means that the product meets the USDA’s organic standards, no matter where in the world it was grown. If this weren’t the case, then only products grown in the US could be called “organic,” and all of the great growers of organic products in countries other than the US would lose their ability to sell their products as “organic” here. We’ve clearly labeled our products from China (and other countries), and have now become more transparent than ever in letting our customers know where our products are from, and why. Here's lots more information we put together: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/issues/organic/globalorganics.html

Mary Straus says …

Joe Dickson, I don't see how you can claim that "We’ve clearly labeled our products from China (and other countries)." I'm looking at a package of 365 brand frozen Broccoli Florets and can't find any mention on the label that they are from China. The only information I see is "Distributed by: Whole Foods Market Austin, Texas." The bar code matches the item listed at http://www.acc-tv.com/images/wjla/news/iteamwholefoodslist052108.pdf that says it comes from China. After the massive pet food recalls last year that killed thousands of pets and sickened tens of thousands, I am horrified to learn that I've been feeding these to my dog (who gets a homemade diet). None of the standard testing would have found the ingredients that were finally identified as causing these deaths (melamine and cyanuric acid, which were deliberately added to increase the supposed protein content and thus the value), so your testing doesn't impress me. I would never knowingly buy food from China for myself or for my dog after that, and I feel betrayed that I was tricked into doing so by Whole Foods, whom I used to trust, but never will again -- especially since you're still not telling the truth! I thought I was safe not having to read labels when I shopped at WF; now I feel naive. If I have to read the labels anyway, I might as well shop elsewhere, where it's cheaper.

Katie says …

I agree with Madonna. I will not buy any foods produced in China - or elsewhere, for that matter, except for the US. I have not confidence that these foods are truly grown under American standards (which themselves have become overly lax). It makes food shopping more difficult, but I am adamant that my foods are grown in the US or Canada. Besides quality control concerns, I see no reason to spend all the fuel bringing my food from around the world.

Joyce says …

Hi, Joe, thanks for this informative post. I have two additional questions: 1) Given the latest melamine controversy in China (e.g. ,http://www.who.int/csr/don/2008_09_19/en/index.html) I was wondering if you could expand a little on the contaminant testing WF performs on its imported organic products. You mention testing for pesticides and heavy metals, but has WF considered testing for microbiological contamination, for instance, or melamine? 2) Whole Foods is recognized as *the* place to shop for those who consider themselves eco-conscious. Importing product from China, especially produce, doesn't seem appropriate for buyers wishing to shrink the size of their carbon footprint. What initiatives has WF pushed stateside, beyond the Go Local campaign, to help buyers support domestic organic producers?

Marianne says …

Not only is buying products from China (most particularly food) undertaking a huge risk that I will NOT take with my health or that of my family, but "organic from China" is an oxymoron. Organic farming is a whole philosophy about sustainability, locally grown foods, and minimizing the impact on the environment. It is not simply growing foods without pesticides or herbicides. As a result, Whole Foods' practice of importing food from halfway across the world, "organic" or not, is antithetical to their professed mission and undermines their credibility.

says …

@Joyce, to address the second part of your question, we do offer support to our domestic producers through the Local Producer Loan Program. More details here: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/values/local-producer-loan-program.php

Madonna Gauding says …

Just to let you know, I will not buy any products from China, organic or not. I would prefer to pay more and be sure of the quality. I just don't believe that you are truly able to monitor growers in China and I don't believe that enough testing is being done of the product to determine if it is OK or not. Your explanation was not reassuring.

says …

@Chris The 365 Everyday Value Fish Oil is sourced from fish harvested from the deep cold waters off of the Pacific coast of South America.

Chris Stetkiewicz says …

I'm done shopping at Whole Foods until it clearly labels country of origin on all its products. Joe Dickson, where does the 365 Fish Oil come from? The label says nothing. WF, we are putting this stuff in our bodies. We deserve to know where it comes from.

Farouk Baxter says …

BUNK. If it took 3 to 4 pages to explain WholeFood's position on China foodstuff, you haven't convinced me yet! I suggest you make a statement to the food industry and ban foodstuff from China.

RC says …

Back in the eighties and nineties, the organic industry warned this would happen. The USDA would get involved with organics and basically, screw it up. Whole Foods Market appears to be making the problem worse. USDA rules and inept oversight have allowed thousands of food products from anywhere in the world to flood into the US organic market place, regardless of their true organic status or more importantly, their safety. Aligned with corporate profits, Whole Foods has taken advantage of this opportunity to tap into cheap products and cheap labor (which will ultimately equal inferior products) from third world countries. As a result, we don't know how natural, chemical-free or safe these products are. For example, many thirld world countries still use harmful chemicals like DDT. WF and the USDA can claim all they want that the sources are certified, but in light of the Chinese melamine problems lately, it just goes to show that the further the "arm" of regulation, the less control is obtained. Are you guys naive enough to believe that some poor farmer in a third world country is going to care about sustainable farming practices, pollution, chemicals, contamination, safety, etc.? They are just as happy to take your money and give you whatever product they can produce, good or bad. So, there you have it. We've taken a beautiful idea like organic foods and corrupted it. Unless WF and other large vendors take necessary steps to enforce oversight, the problem will become worse. I highly recommend that the first step you take is to REQUIRE every product give a full list of countries from which EACH ingredient is originated. You don't currently do that for every product. If you are going to "cheap out" on your products, at least let us know which ones you are going to "cheap out" on. Until that happens, I (and others) will start to move away from WF and either back to US conventionally-grown products or locally-grown products. At least, we would have some idea of the truth behind their origins and safety (for better or worse). You guys, on the other hand, have been misleading us into thinking that ANYTHING from WF must be good. This is simply not true. It might even come down to each of us having to grow our own food, like our great-great grandparents did before us. It is a shame how far we've come and yet, how much we've lost. So much for the idea of you get what you pay for...congratulations, I think your company has manage to break the golden rule and get premium prices for inferior products.

Peter Peverelli says …

Will China be the leader in organic food and ingredients? China is already the third largest producer of organic produce in terms of hectares and the domestic consumption of organic foods is also increasing in the urban regions. Would China have the potential of becoming number one? After some initial research, I have started a campaign in this market. It would be interesting to obtain some feedback on my thoughts. http://www.docstoc.com/docs/3902797/Chinese-Organic-Food-Market-Study An interesting discussion on my proposal has been initiated on Linked in: http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&amp;gid=36656&amp;discussionID=1259419&amp;goback=.anh_36656

KKP says …

Are any of you at Whole Foods honestly reading the hogwash that has become the standard Whole Foods Market propaganda? I used to go to the first Whole Foods store in Austin when it was a little store selling organic food, safe from all the things wrong with traditional food. Now when I visit a Whole Foods Market in Houston, I see as much, if not more, "traditional" produce from all over the world, including Mexico. Those of us who grew up in Texas and visited Mexico on family trips learned that, to prevent a nasty stomach bug, we should not eat the produce. Now I can pay an insanely hiked up amount for Mexican non-organic produce because it is sold at Whole Foods. And all of those banners that say "buy local???" Who are you kidding? I challenge you to stroll the produce aisles and find any local produce. Oh, you do sell some honey and a salsa or two that are local, but so does every other grocery store in town. Have you thought about buying from any of the local farmers? Did you ever plan to buy land and create your own organic farms that were, maybe, I don't know, LOCAL? And now, you're trying to convince us that you're growing organic foods in China that we should actually pay Whole Foods prices for and take your word for it that they are safe? Right after you swore never to sell anything with hydrogenated fats, although you will sell high-fructose corn syrup, because it's "natural." Remember when you were the store selling good, local, safe, high-quality food? Surely, Whole Foods Markets is aware that, to your shoppers, organic means much more than just all-natural gardening. When the water is contaminated, the air is filthy and unsafe, the dirt in the ground is not so safe either. How can you believe that you can plop some "organically grown" items down in the middle of a place where everything surrounding your little garden is contaminated? What makes your organic produce different from the organic produce at Wal-Mart now? I think the big joke is that the only difference is that you charge much more for the same stuff that is at Wal-Mart. Do you not realize that much of the value that Whole Foods carries is in goodwill? People trust -- or used to trust -- Whole Foods to make the right decisions for its customers and all of its stakeholders as well as the planet. Now, you are simply another store making a buck -- lots of bucks in your case. I became disillusioned with your stores a long time ago and now do as much of my produce buying as possible at farmers' markets. Even though I found the produce section a joke, I had continued to buy packaged organic items. I'm now returning all of the peanut butter in my pantry and in my refrigerator (already opened) that I now know is from China. Yes, it was there on the label all along. But, guess what? I bought it from Whole Foods, a store I used to trust, so I never thought I had to read the label. Any other store, I would have read the label, but I thought since it was the 365 brand from Whole Foods, that I could buy it without worries. What else are you doing that we will find when we read your labels more carefully? Getting the milk from cows in Russia? You've lost the only thing you really had over all the other stores that now sell organic foods -- my trust.

Lisa B says …

The fact that Whole Foods is defending the Chinese market is extremely disappointing. Local sources of organic, sustainable, year-round food products are relatively limited, unless you happen to live in certain regions of California, and so I find myself sometimes at the mercy of what Whole Foods has to offer. There is NO WAY, however, that I am going to willingly, consciously consume any food products produced, harvested or in any way sourced from China. The Chinese government, markets and businesses have repeatedly revealed their abuses in various industries, food just being one of them, but quite frankly, the most important of them. I refuse to risk poisoning myself or my family for the sake of saving a pretty penny, supporting and proliferating the growth of a Chinese Organic Market, supposedly suitable for the U.S. Maybe my standards are just set too high, but Whole Foods is increasingly revealing itself to be "big industry", with profit being its ever most important priority.

Mamazboy says …

Can't we all just admit that Whole Foods is doing this entirely for economic reasons? There is no reason with the wealth of U.S. organic resources to bother with "Chinese organics." Just like every other American business that's utilizing (exploiting) terribly low-paid workers in China, India, etc. We must take care of U.S. workers first. And the idea that WF can get reasonable, verifiable transparency from Chinese "organic" companies sounds quite far-fetched. It's all about the bottom line here, folks, and it would better if WF could just come out and say so.

Christine says …

WHole foods unfortunatelly became a profit-oriented institution folowing Wall-Mart's strategies for stocks since it decreased it's growing. Too bad that money-making goals overpassed the company's primary goals. Food from China????Knowing of all scandals agains regulations, killing from pets to babies? No thanks, Whole Foods, I'll stick with more serious groceries stores. This kind of profit strategy just make you loose your most loyal costumers.

Gary says …

I would rather consume conventional produce from a local grocery store than organic Chinese produce from WF. This is a flipping outrage as far as I am concerned. Part of the reason people shop at WF is so that they don't have to be worried or concerned about poor quality. To the point, I recently cooked (but did not consume) some frozen spinach, there was something in the spinach that looked like "green beans". Yeah, maybe it's just me but upon noticing that the spinach was a "product of China" I threw it out along with the other stuff in my refrigerator that were "product(s) of China". This erodes trust and credibility but when WF starts to procure meats from China please clearly display this in a proud fashion so that I can avoid those too. Thank you

Perri says …

This is a crock! I will never intentionally buy food from China for my family.

Seeking 有机 says …

I'm really surprised at the number of comments that seem to suggest that Whole Foods shouldn't operate with a profit. Whole Foods is not a non-profit organization and yes, they do have a responsibility to their shareholders. These are the people that own the company. Hello? That said, I do have a concern with food from China. I've had five bacterial infections from various trips to Asian countries with better standards than China. All I ask for is choice though. If there are people that want a low-cost Chinese product, they should carry it. I just want a comparable selection of Columbia River Organics Products. I shopped a local Whole Foods after having picked Columbia River Organics Garden Harvest Stir Fry while recently traveling and really enjoying it (many trips back to that Whole Foods over the two week trip.) There were only a few products available and I picked up the closest thing, 365 Thai Vegetable Stir-Fry. I didn't see the China label until I went to cook them. WF - Give your customers a choice. I'd rather pay the same for a 10 oz bag of WSDA Certified Organic vegetables than a 16 oz bag of vegetables from China. This would only increase sales (and therefore profits) as you obviously have a lot of customers that are uncomfortable with the idea of eating produce from China. I'm not sure if the characters after Seeking will come out in the post or not. This is the simplified Chinese characters for "organic." Seeking 有机

Frank Olivera says …

A friend of mine works for the EPA in the legal department. I asked about Organics in China. She said not to trust it. I found a news report on this subject and the following statement was said. QAI can not inspect chinese farm, they rely on a goverment agent to inspect... google qai inspecting chinas farms.

Angie says …

Personally, I still do not feel secure with any products from China (or other countries) let alone food. I have read about the "audits" that are done. For example, a manufacturer can purchase a $1000. audit or an $8000. audit and still pass but the more expensive audit will be more comprehensive. There is documentation from cases that after passing numerous audits there was tainted food that had to be recalled from those manufacturers. At least in the USA (although there have been cases of tainted food), you know that regulations are stricter than overseas. What chemicals are allowed and handling standards are watched more closely here. Speaking of organics, another problem is that since the "organic movement" is becoming more acceptable and more people are buying into the fact that organics are better for you, many more companies are jumping onto the bandwagon to make money in this area and are lowering the organic standards. One example of this is Horizon. I have red that they are using cows that were not raised organically and using them in their milk production. There are some companies out there that are strictly sticking to the "organic principals" and I will continue to buy their products. I spend hundreds of dollars a month at Whole Foods to buy food for my family that is nutritious and safe. I read the labels carefully and keep up to date on the ingredients terminology as the term for msg and other additives have changed to try to hide them in foods. I also read the frozen packages as I have seen frozen vegetables from China in your stores (although I was told they are about 1% of your inventory). The most disturbing thing for me is when I think I am buying a product from USA and I find out that yes, it was manufactured in the USA but with ingredients from China or other countries. For example, Solgar Vitamins makes vitamins in the USA but with most of the ingredients from China and other countries. I called them and asked where they get their ingredients and they said "China and other countries". There is an 800 number right on the bottle. They are one of the most recommended vitamin companies. Now, I won't buy them but I appreciate their honesty. When this is the case, then it should be labeled manufactured in the USA with outsourced ingredients because technically, these products are not manufactured in the USA just assembled here if the ingredients are foreign. So, with all of this you really can't trust any of it. If it is labeled USA it can be full of ingredients from China. How can we know? There needs to be stricter labeling policies which the food manufacturers are fighting and lobbying in Washington to stop. The more informed consumers are will allow them to choose what they want to consume and not think they are getting one thing when they are really eating something else. Then, when Americans stop buying this foregin food and it starts rotting on the shelves, maybe then manufacturers and stores with stop stocking it. Until then, those who are uninformed and just buy for the pretty packaging, because they liked the commercial or because they don't know where the food is really from, will just have to cross their fingers and hope that their next meal won't be tainted with chemicals, filth or any other foregin object.

Sandy says …

Whether or not China actually produces organic is not the issue for me. SHIPPING anything that far is bad environmental policy. Yes, it is less expensive for Whole Foods to buy from industrial organic farms in China, but in terms of mass amounts petrochemical product used simply to MOVE that product across the globe is inexcusable. "Industrial Organic" is a compromise at best when feeding thousands of people. We want healthy food for individuals and earth friendly practices. We must look at not only *how* the food is grown, but *how* it comes to our tables, as well. Whole Foods needs to wake up and realize that this group of consumers are a little more savvy than some others. Continuing to pull this kind of BS will lose your company many trusting, loyal clients...myself included.

lisainphoenix says …

There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea, and most of them have been covered: the main thing for me is the hypocrisy of "go local-support local" on all the grocery bags-this is a complete farce!! The produce dept is full of oranges from new zealand and australia-tomatoes-cukes-peppers-avocados from Chile and Mexico. What about seasonal organic items that are local-or at least domestic?? And now I look on my bag of frozen broccoli and find that it's "produced in china". The carbon footprint alone is just not lining up for me with Whole Foods philosophy. After reading this on the bag (and after eating lots of it) I am left feeling deceived. Yes I should have looked on the bag-but 365 organic implied to me local or at least domestic organic. Not made in china. ugh! It's so upsetting-my consumer trust has been utterly violated. I do read labels-for ingredients-not where my grocery items, that I am paying premium prices for, are manufactured. I expect to do that in Target for non-food items-but Whole Foods?? I will make every effort to not give another red cent to this company by supporting local stores, farmer's markets and smaller chains. I am so outraged over this Whole Foods!! I find it disgusting that you have lowered yourself to these practices and write on blogs trying to justify it. It in no way is justifiable to those of us who supported this company believing that they are in sync with our beliefs-it simply is not the case.

frank says …

I find the comments below troubling...angry customers that have not stopped shopping at Whole Foods, therefore, making it obvious your not that angry over organics from China. I shop at Whole Foods but mainly for cleaning products that I can't find elsewhere but shy away from the foods.

Robert says …

I will not eat any products from china whether you say they are organic or not. I ate pine nuts from china sold at whole foods and now everything I eat tastes like bitter metal for days. I was very dismayed to discover that whole foods was aware of this problem with chinese pine nuts but continues to sell them. You cannot trust whole foods. They will sell products fully aware of harm that may come to customers from eating them.

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