Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

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.

----------------------

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.

Leave a reply

To provide feedback or ask a question about our company, a store or a product, please visit our Customer Service page.

For more information about posting comments to our blog, please see our Comment Posting Guidelines.

131 comments

Comments

Vicky says …

Please identify the country of origin in a large, easy to find label. While you make great points about China, the Chinese government has proven to be an unreliable regulator. We plan to go through all our food and return anything from from China. I just won't take chances with my 1 yr old, given the unacceptable track record of the Chinese government on food regulations. In addition, please consider the environmental impact of shipping food from overseas. I try to buy food from north america whenever possible. Not only is it fresher, but it contributes less to global warming and oceanic pollution.

Michele (Metro Detroit) says …

News of dangerous products from China is one of the reasons I became a regular Whole Foods customer. So, I was furious (and sickened!) to discover that the frozen broccoli florets and asparagus I had been feeding my infant daughter were grown in the same country that has produced melamine-laced milk/baby formula, toothpaste with formaldehyde, and lead-coated toys!! While it is a challenge to avoid everything made in China, I refuse to knowingly ingest or feed my family anything grown and/or produced there. I hope you will reconsider your position on "organic" products from China. Your customers DO NOT and WILL NOT believe that this food is safe no matter how many pages of explanation you write.

Brigitte says …

I have been a WF customer for many years, and have never had a complaint. But I stopped buying frozen spinach at WF as soon as I realized it is from China. PLEASE bring back frozen leaf spinach from the US. I will start reading labels at WF much more closely, and stop buying any foods from China.

rob says …

Chinese food is great, as long as it is made in America. I am not even interested in purchasing "made in China" food products. This pitch is reminiscent of the great wal of china mart.

Naomi Bailis says …

I have spent several hours researching the topic of organic food from China and it's connection to Whole Foods. I have also discovered, much to my surprise, that the Sugar Snap Peas I purchased recently from Whole Foods indeed came from China. On the matter of transparency: If Whole Foods was operating from a standpoint of genuine transparency, they would have broken the story about China organics themselves. The fact that the product's origin is placed on the back of the product in very small print might legally pass as transparency, but hardly counts as such in the real world of the frequent Whole Foods customer, at least, this previously frequent Whole foods customer. The question for me is if transparency is a company tenet, why did Whole Foods not come out first with this story? The answer seems clear. The China of today and organic farming seem almost antithetical. China's record of product safety, environmental standards, worker safety, worker's rights, the list goes on, is dismal. Stating loudly and clearly that 365 California Blend is grown in China was not likely to make a splash with the American consumer, especially the ones who want to purchase organic food. I do not doubt for a minute that there are indeed organic farmers in China and know that their cultural history is a rich one for this practice. This does not mitigate, but only highlights how far China has come, sadly, from those ancient practices. Then there is the additional matter of the distance these products must travel to Whole Foods store shelves in the U.S. and all of the issues that presents nutritionally, environmentally, politically. Before you know it, those snap peas don't seem nearly as appetizing as they did before. It remains a dubious proposition at best to make claims that the USDA and Quality Assurance International place the consumer ahead of the food industry as a whole, including the organic food industry. For instance, the language of the USDA's mandate was only recently changed from "promote the food industry" to "encourage the food industry." A desire to protect and promote industry interests runs through all government organizations, including the USDA. It is naive of consumers to expect large companies and government protection agencies to place the consumer before their own profit interests when the rubber meets the road. This must include even the seemingly "good guys", like Whole Foods. This recent discovery for me about outsourced farming to China, a story that is almost a year old now for many, only highlights the dilemma and responsibility consumers face. The choice between convenience and economical shopping is pitted against the desire to eat food that is of genuine high quality, that is truly what it says it is without any spin or theatrics about the country of origin. It is clear that buying locally, CSA's or growing your own food likely offers the best chance to exercise some stewardship over food purchases/consumption for the careful consumer (just make sure your seeds aren't from Monsanto). Indeed, Whole Foods makes this a very public part of their credo with all of the store signage about eating locally. It's astonishing, the cynicism, and how easy it is for the consumer to be deceived if they are not extremely aware and well informed. I will still likely shop to some extent at Whole Foods. But I will eliminate many products from my list of purchases. The marketplace of public opinion does speak volumes. If others voice their opinions and follow up with their actions, the market over time will reflect consumer demand. We can and do make a difference.

Jim says …

Thank you for addressing a very biased report clearly lacking in much factual information. There are “good” and “bad” players in most industries and in every country. China has gotten a black eye for some of the bad practices in the food industry, and deservingly so. China is a big place, and it is not fair to paint the entire industry with one brush when there are many good people doing the right thing there. Just as it would be unfair to blame all the spinach producers, or all of the peanut butter producers, or all of the ground beef producers, for some of the food safety issues that occurred ion the United States. The organic industry is improving the lives of the farmers and the local community in the area where we grow. Whether a farmer is from China, Africa or the United States, growing organically is reducing the amount of chemicals in our environment and in our food, and in turn helping the family farm, which is a good thing. It should not be about “imports versus local” but it is about healthy (as in fruits and vegetables) versus unhealthy (as in junk food) food choices. By importing organic products and fresh produce from China, the industry is providing a healthy product to the consumer at an affordable cost. In our society where most of the calories we consume are from junk food. I have to agree First Lady Obama that as American’s we need to eat healthier diets. Jim P.S. Do Oriental Blend vegetables have to come from the Orient?

Beryl Gorbman says …

First of all, the statement that traditional Chinese peasant farmers were excellent organic gardeners is rather meaningless when you consider that any primitive culture produces organic products, as long as chemicals are not available to them. Fertilizers came into use in the late 1800's, but the harmful chemical fertilizers in use today didn't bloom until about 50 years ago. The other problem with certifying any kind of ethical standard in China, is that the "Cultural Revolution" seems to have wiped out all the traditional values and all the pride once so prominent there. A friend of mine was in charge of the production there of a well-known American electronic hardware product, and left his job because it was impossible to prevent the workers from putting faulty parts back on the assembly line behind his back when he himself had plucked them as rejects. I won't buy any food made or grown in China. When processed food boxes specify only "distributed by," I know that is often a pretext for food having been grown or processed in China. Last year, I wrote to Lean Cuisine, "distributed by" somewhere in the USA, and asked them directly. They answered, telling me that "China was one of their most important trading partners, etc. etc.," and then let me know that yes, Lean Cuisine dinners originate there. I HATED having to give up Lean Cuisine. Beryl Gorbman

Rocco says …

This absolutely sucks. I will not buy anything from Wholefoods again. I hate China for goods and avoid them wherever I can. Then we find out that this is your food supplier? NO THANKS!!!! GOOD BYE FOREVER!

Susan King says …

Time-Out! I just read this article and so I thought to myself "self go to your pantry and check your canned goods that are organic" Well I did just that and I have praise forWhole Foods for telling its consumers where each product is from. Let me give you some examples of other organic foods that do not even tell you where the product is from. Westbrae Organic Black Beans (all of their beans actually) It is certified Organic but where did my beans come from? Muir Glen Oraganic tomatoes agsin USDA Organic but where did those little tomatoes come from? And my most favorite Del Monte Organics - they are packed in the USA but where are the tomatoes from. It is quite possible that each and everyone of the above mentioned could be grown in the US but most likely not. I will be more carefull after this although I give WF's the credit for being upfront and honest. As far as the rest I will purchase the honest ones first and theat is WHOLE FOODS! DId I mention we live in Virginia Beach and we have to drive to Richmond just to get to WF so loyalty it still is.

Jon says …

Relax nervous people. I trust Whole Foods Market because they are a good company and set the standards for safety and high quality Just imagine all of the scary stuff people eat who shop at regular supermarkets or other small market.   How do they measure and control quality from their suppliers?  The small markets probably don't have any ability to do that - that's scary! Keep up the good work Whole Foods Market in leading the way in setting the standards to keep corporate America honest in keeping Americans safe with what we eat. Jon in New Jersey

Janaize says …

I also have to say there is ZERO chance I would buy any food from China. Maybe tea, but that's about it.

miriam harel says …

my confidence in the USDA was not very high recently, given funding and man power issues.But organics from China? not a chance that I will buy them in the foreseeable future,given the "transparency " practiced there.

Steve says …

Why is is the people like Susan who says "Timeout" or Jon who tells us to "relax" feel compelled to tell us these things? Both of you can mind your own values. We have a right to be upset with WF base on "OUR" values, not yours. So please spare us. Feel free to ingest whatever you want from CHINA where they poison their own people not just what they export. Hey, they've got too many people there anyway right? They don't care. Period. I for one, stopped shopping at Whole Foods when I first read of this. I pay more for American made and American grown products wherever I can find them. It takes some effort but against my set of values, it's worth it.

amy bonetti says …

I am beyond angry that Whole Foods would carry ANYTHING from China. I will no longer be shopping at Whole Foods Mill Valley and everyone else I have talked to will also not be shopping there anymore. I shopped at WF weekly and NEVER read where food came from as I trusted WF to take care of me. NEVER will I shop at your store again. This makes me so sick and I am furious. Greed is ugly, and you have lost many customers and their faith over this one. Food from China is beyond crazy. I am shaking I am so mad. Amy

Sharon says …

I have no interest in buying any food product from China. Why can't Whole Foods buy its produce in the US? Even produce out of season can be bought from our neighbors in Mexico. They don't have to ship all the way from China! It is costly and hurts the environment, using up fossil fuels and putting excess gasses into the air.

Peggy Hankins says …

Hello, I love whole foods. Why must you buy products from China? This makes me very unhappy. I am a cancer survivor and I do not trust China. I was buying my dog (Abbey Gail) the best of the best dog food. Dick VanPattens made in USA and it had that melmonie poision in it and she almost died. I do not trust China and do not want to buy anything from China and so do most of my friends. How do I know that a product you are selling has had anything to do with China? I go out of my way to come to Whole Foods. Foolish me thinking that you would keep your product in the USA. Sincerely, Peggy Hankins

Robert says …

Hey Jim, feel free to eat all the Chinese food that you want. Just don't ask me to. I support American farmers and products. You are what you eat. Good luck with your strategy. Robert

Jim says …

Agreed Robert. People vote with dollars, and should spend them accordingly. My only "strategy" is trying to bring some balance to the discussion. I am in the industry, and I am a big supporter of local farmers, and I sell much more produce from American growers than any single import. And I do support the good Chinese farmers and producers that I work with as well. As a supporter of good agriculture, if I am what I eat, I suppose I have a little bit of some good things from all over the world, and proud of it.

Tina says …

BUY LOCAL!!!!! The amount of fossil fuels you are using to transport food that is already grown in this country is outrageous and totally diminishes the value of organic food. It is so hypocritical to be promoting organics and the practices that are necessary to produce organic foods while you are not only getting food from so far away but supporting another country's economy over our own.

Elizabeth says …

I think it is time we take a look at the real cost of cheap food. Americans are becoming more and more accustomed to eating alot more food than other generations at a relatively inexpensive price. Retailers all over are chasing the demands of the American consumer. They go to other countries to bring in fruits and vegetables at a cheaper price that can be grown domestically. We all pay a price for that. Yes, we take a chance when we buy baby formula or dog food that we can innocently poison our family. It is time we wake up to the price of cheap food. How about we put our AMERICAN farmers back to work, and we pay the real price. While we are at it, perhaps we should be looking at quality and not quantity of what we put in our mouths. As Bob Dylan said, The Times Are Changing! Retailers fill what they think WE want to buy, take RESPONSIBILITY.

kathy says …

Walmart- Whole Foods, Walmart- Whole Foods- same- BIG profits are the bottom line- mass buying is the bottom line. We used to travel to our nearest Whole Foods to stock up - never again. Would much rather buy inorganic grown in USA I think, than buy from China or Chile. It's hard enough to monitor organic day to day practices in USA, but in China- impossible and as evidenced by some of their other products- they don't care what gets exported!!!!

Wil says …

WF products are expensive and I thought it was because of the quality and mostly because they are from the US or Western Europe. Please stop selling food from China and other countries where the gov are unreliable just to make a bigger margin! Help the US economy to get back on its feet. The production of everything is in China and other countries around it, stop buying those otherwise the average american will suffer of loosing more jobs and there will be less customer on the long run... MAKE A BIG LABEL when the food is from CHINA or other countries and you will see what the customers really want to buy - Please do not call a product "California Blend vegetable" if it come from China! be ethically correct and call it "Chinese Blend vegetable" or even better "Made in China Blend Vegetable!".

Vince says …

I enjoyed your article, it was very informative; however I remember years ago when Wal-mart put out their big campaigns about buying American when in actually they were forcing their vendors to set up shop in China.... I am hopeful that we are not seeing the Walmartizing of Whole Foods....I love WF's, and do not mind paying a little extra for the quality food you put on your shelves, that said if you continue to use suppliers from China I WILL NOT SHOP AT YOUR STORES....

Kristine B. says …

I'm an organic fruit grower from Washington State (Whole Foods actually carries some of our varieties). I understand the need to source products from other countries, as the US can't grow produce year-round and WF wants to provide their consumers produce year-round. But China?! As a grower, I read a lot of trade journals and I don't trust ANY food from China. The pollution from a billion people is staggering - over half of them don't have plumbing. Where do you think all that waste goes? There are plenty of developed southern hemisphere countries to buy from. As a consumer, I'm more than willing to pay more for safe produce. I will never knowingly buy any food from China.

Alex B says …

Here is a comment from your former customer. I used to be buying your products until today. You can keep all of your "Made outside of US" products to yourself. I don't trust you.

C. Stall says …

We love Whole Foods and were saddened to see the video about China. The issue for us is not whether or not China is organic, but whether or not Whole Foods is buying locally and supporting local farmers and economies instead of cheaping out with questionable chinese produce. The China issue seems rather more an issue of how high WF profits will be. Maybe give a little on the profitablility and more to the communities that grow good, organic produce locally. We wish Whole Foods well and acknowledge the challenge of providing affordable organic produce while supporting local economies. CS

genevieve morgan says …

I wonder, if Whole Foods is so confident about their 'organic' imports from China, why do they hide where the food comes from in small print on the back of the package? This is just an outright scam. It is shocking to me that executives at WF are willing to play both ends against the middle. They buy cheap, unregulated produce from China and charge high-end, gourmet, organic prices at home. Only one entity comes out on top in that equation and it is not the US consumer or farmer. So much for the lofty mission; personally, I can't wait for my CSA allotment.

Jim says …

Regarding trade, Washington State Fruit Grower...do you know China is the largest Export Market for Washington State Apples? China imports much more food from the United States than we import from China. We are shipping the products that we are most efficient at producing to China. In turn they are shipping products to us that they are more efficient at producing. The United States cannot meet the demand of organic frozen vegetables, garlic and ginger without imports. Small farms are not very efficient at producing commodities like grains that a more efficiently produces by large scale, mechanized operations. However, they are very efficient at growing labor intensive crops, like fruits and vegetables. Organic agriculture is also very labor intensive, so the Chinese are very good organic farmers.

Jim says …

Regarding carbon footprint, even though the "food miles" represented by ocean shipping is an insignificant amount as compared to other inputs, even in taking ocean freight into account, industrialized production as done in most western style operations, dwarfs the the carbon foot print of ag in China. For instance, the villagers live near their fields and either walk or ride bicycles to their farms. Everything is done by hand with zero mechanization. On industrial farms in the United States, everything from planting, to cultivating to harvesting is done with tractors and combines. If you have ever driven by a field in California or Florida that is being harvested, so will see a row of 20 to 50 cars owned by the workers harvesting the field. In China, you may see one or two cars and a shed full of bicycles at a production facility. It is just a different scale and way of doing things there.

Jim says …

Elizabeth, thank you for bringing up the problem of too much cheap food available in this country - I will get to that below. With regard to the pet food and baby formula issues - there is no excuse for what happened, and that behavior is deplorable, just as it is when U.S. Manufacturers of Peanut Butter, Canned Tomatoes or Ground Beef knowingly sell product that is no good. Unfortunately, there are bad players that do these things. It is not right to condemn an entire industry (or country) because of them. The abundance of cheap food in this country is a very valid point, and the World Health Organization (WHO)has published quite a lot on this subject. As Michael Pollen points out in "Food Inc.", 'How is it that you can buy a 99-cent cheeseburger but not even a head of broccoli?' The food that low income people can afford is often cheap, industrialized, mass produced, and inexpensive according to the WHO. Because these calories are subsidized, we end up with a supermarket in which the least healthy calories are the cheapest. And the most healthy calories are the most expensive. That, in the simplest terms, is the root of the obesity epidemic for the poor. The biggest prediction of obesity is income. What is one of the WHO's recommendations for countering this issue? Increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts. So increasing the opportunity for the consumption of more fruits and vegetables is a good thing. I am sure Bob Dylan eats a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and would agree with that. Jim

SHAREBEAR says …

MY HUSBAND AND I HAVE VERY LITTLE MONEY LEFT OVER AFTER WE PAY OUR BILLS FOR FOOD. WE HAVE BEEN EATING ORGANIC FOR 5+ YEARS. THE ONLY TIME WE STRAY IS IF WE GO OUT TO A RESTRAUNT, WHICH IS RARE. OUR DAUGHTER IS 2&1/2, SHE DID NOT EAT ANYTHING WITHOUT THE USDA ORGANIC STAMP UNTILL HER SECOND BIRTHDAY. WE ARE SO HAPPY TO HAVE WHOLE FOODS WITHIN REACH. I HAVE TO DRIVE 45 MIN TO GET THEIR AND 45 MIN BACK HOME BUT THE COST OF THEIR ORGANICS ARE WORTH IT. I WAS SO SUPRISED TO HERE ABOUT FOOD FROM CHINA I HAVE A SMALL BUDGET AND BUY WHAT IS CHEEPEST OR ON SALE AND A LOT OF TIME 365 HAPPENS TO BE THE BRAND WE BRING HOME. NOW I FEEL UNSURE ABOUT PURCHACING THESE ITEMS. I JUST NOW READ THIS REPORT. I AM DISAPOINTED BECAUSE WFM IS KNOWEN FOR LOCAL GROWEN AND ORGANICS I CHECK LABLES FOR THE USDA ORGANIC STAMP AND FAT GRAMS BUT I NEVER THOUGHT TO LOOK FOR MADE IN USA ON SOME OF THEIR FOOD, JUST FRESH PRODUCE. I BELIVE IN ORGANICS I EAT LESS AND MAKE CHEEP DINERS INSTEAD OF THE 5*** ONES I WOULD RATHER HAVE IN ORDER TO BUY ORGANICS. I SHOP AT WFM BECAUSE I THOUGHT THAT I COULD PUT THINGS IN MY CART HOME AND BODY WITH LESS WORRIE BECAUSE YOU COULD TRUST THEM. I EXPECT ALDI TO HAVE "BAD" FOOD OR ITEMS FROM CHINA AND FULL OF PESTIDES BECAUSE THEY CLAIM LOW LOW PRICES NOT GRADE A FOOD. ALSO YOU USUALLY GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR AT A SAVE A LOT OR DISCOUNT FOOD MARKET. I REALY ENJOY WHOLE FOODS THEY ARE SO HELPFUL, ORGANIZED, AND CLEAN. THEY SEEM TO MAKE GOING TO THE MARKET LESS OF A CHORE AND MORE OF AN ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE. I WILL KEEP SHOPPING AT WFM. I HOPE THE 365 BRAND WILL COME AROUND TO MORE BEING GROWEN AND PRODUCED IN USA. TILL THEN I WILL HAVE TO SPEND MORE TIME READING THE LABLES AND BUY LESS FOOD FROM OTHER BRANDS FOR THE HIGHER COST. :-)ORGANIC OHIO MOM

Jim says …

I travel to China's agricultural area 3 times a year. So, unless you see it with your own eyes, it is not fair to say they are any less transparent or unregulated than any organic or "locally" grown produce here in the U.S. If anything, the industry is more regulated and companies like Whole Foods require stricter standards from China. As for the font size on the packaging, most of the packaging I see is pretty consistent with the Country of Origin and the Ingredients etc. Of course USA producers should proudly and boldly display that their product is from the USA because it is a selling point. Supporting local farmers is all good. So is supporting organic agriculture from China or any other place. We are trying to raise up the small farmer, reduce chemicals in the environment, and make the planet a better place. Spending your food dollars on CSAs is commendable. But why shouldn't a lower income person be afforded the same benefits of eating organic foods if products produced in China offer an affordable price point? It a healthy food issue and an environmental issue, not an "Us" versus "Them" issue.

Christine Myre says …

My family and I have chosen to no longer shop at whole foods until the Chinese produce is out of the aisles. period.

Brad says …

I am a loyal team member at Whole Foods, but I was appalled to discover that many of the frozen vegetables under the 365 Organic label are from China. While the carbon footprint and exploitation of workers is of concern, that is something that is difficult to avoid with most products (Target). With food though, that is a completely different story. Organic food should be safe and healthy! If this organic produce is being watered with contaminated water (water not safe for people to drink) and breathing polluted air, this is contradictory to the entire reason for choosing organics! Not to mention all of the safety concerns China has had with toys, pet food, etc. How can we trust them with organic foods? Whole Foods, SWITCH TO US SUPPLIERS!!!

Jim says …

Brad, You are right, Organic food should be safe and healthy! The fact is, there are very good farmers and producers of safe, healthy, and yes, organic vegetables and fruits in China. As mentioned in several posts above, the standards in China meet or exceed anything produced in the U.S. or elsewhere. Look at the scruntiny China is getting, just on this blog. Dont you think if there were some recent issues with the organic produce having pesticides etc. this would already have been big news? Regarding water: Water on our organic farms is taken from deep wells. The water is clean and suitable to drink. Regarding carbon footprint: even though the “food miles” represented by ocean shipping is an insignificant amount as compared to other inputs, even in taking ocean freight into account, industrialized production as done in most western style operations, dwarfs the the carbon foot print of ag in China. For instance, the villagers live near their fields and either walk or ride bicycles to their farms. Everything is done by hand with zero mechanization. On industrial farms in the United States, everything from planting, to cultivating to harvesting is done with tractors and combines. If you have ever driven by a field in California or Florida that is being harvested, so will see a row of 20 to 50 cars owned by the workers harvesting the field. In China, you may see one or two cars and a shed full of bicycles at a production facility. It is just a different scale and way of doing things there. The single greatest way to reduce the carbon footprint from food is to reduce your consumption of red meat. If we all ate 1 less meal per week of red meat, this would do far more than switching 100% to locally consumed produce - look it up. Regarding labor: Local farmers from the villages we work with have a direct stake in organic vegetables we sell. This is confirmed by a Fair Trade audit by BRC. Having worked for the U.S. Labor department doing migrant farm labor advocacy in the United States, I have seen good farm employers in the US and terrible ones. Again, you cannot paint one indusuty with one brush because of a few bad players. Jim

Carmen Amparo says …

You my have legitimate doubts of the capability of your own government to enforce your organic regulations on food coming from China or else where. And you may feel likewise about the motives for Whole Food Market to promote it. But to think that in the whole country of China there's no food of quality of organic farms and all food is crap or poor or toxic or contaminated or incapable of reach US standards just because it comes from China is the raciest thing.

Brad says …

Jim, China sure is getting a lot of scrutiny. Where do you think that comes from? Are people just making it up? No, it's based on fact and experience, as I explain below. Other countries aren't getting the scrutiny that China is getting for a good reason – they do not have the problems China has. I am not trying to say that China's organic produce has pesticides. It may though, that is hard to say, considering that the Chinese government is auditing the farms, not the USDA or Quality Assurance International, or another agency without a stake in the results. He comes down to “he said she said that he said this is organic.” Where's the actual report? Carmen, the capability of the USDA to enforce organic standards is of particular concern in China due to the government having such a strong role in the farming AND the regulation. Also, thinking that food is not up to US organic standards because it comes from China is not racist – it's based on fact and experience. With over a billion people, China has serious pollution problems, which results in polluted air and water. The lower cost of living and higher level of government involvement in business also mean that money-saving techniques (also known as contaminants) are popular (such as using human fecal matter as fertilizer). Even if the water used for farming comes from “deep wells,” it is still the same polluted and contaminated water. Regardless, if the local water is contaminated, the soil is contaminated. Safe foods do not grow in contaminated soil. China has a bad record with safety. Lead in children's toys, melamine and other chemicals in pet food (resulting in about 8500 pet deaths), and the list goes on. Chinese products simply have more safety concerns. There is a reason that audit information is not available with Chinese organics. Whole Foods Market uses QAI to confirm organic integrity of products sold under its store label, as per USDA Organic Standards. QAI then hires another undisclosed agency (under the Chinese government) to confirm the organic integrity. The Chinese government has a large stake in the farms, so the audit agencies are likely to look the other way when things are not up to standards. The problem is that the information simply is not public. If I want to see the report showing which agency directly confirmed the organic integrity of, say, 365 Organic Thai Stir Fry Vegetables, I would not be able to. They are not available to the public. So we are trusting QAI to evaluate these audits that we cannot see ourselves, from an agency we do not know about, from a farm that is not disclosed... If there is nothing to hide, then why is this information hidden? This has nothing to do with “race.” It is not that a Chinese worker cannot produce safe, quality, organic food. It is that no one can positively produce safe, quality, organic food in a country like China. Chinese products can't be be considered safe. We have had too many bad experiences with Chinese products before, and the lack of oversight with Chinese organics is of no assurance. So I would like to know this: If Whole Foods Market is so “sure” of these Chinese organics, why not do a survey? Ask WFM customers how they feel about their organic products being from China. Give them a list of pros and cons of Chinese organics. Let them decide. The answer will be obvious: WFM shoppers do not want Chinese organics! WFM shoppers want safe food, that's why they shop at WFM!

Jim says …

Brad, what you are saying is based on "facts" is pure conjecture at best, and is has no basis in knowledge or awareness of what is actually happening in China. Anything sold in the United States as Organic regardless of what country it is grown is under the USDA standards and is certified as organic by an independent audit supervised by the USDA. And this is just the start. I cannot speak for every producer in China, but our facility is certified by GlobalGap and BRC (British Retail Consortium). You can learn more about these standards on the net. In my many posts, I never once mention race as a factor, but I will say that any issues from China get far more negative press than similar issues in the United States. For instance, have you ever heard of "Fertilizergate"? Just a couple of short years ago, the major organic fertilizer companies that sell 95% of the United States organic growers were found to be cheating and their fertilizer was not organic. Here is a link to a story about that: http://naturalfoodsmerchandiser.com/tabId/119/itemId/3615/California-faces-organic-Fertilizergate.aspx Under the USDA rules, all of the products grown with this fertilizer could have been ruled not organic and there would have had been a massive recall. The industry and the USDA made an exception and allowed any products grown with the fertilizer to maintain their organic standards. If this had been in China - I think this news would be all over this blog. As for pollutants, it is a shame that China is achieving Western Standards in this category! They emit about the same level of pollutants as the US with about 4 times the population. As an industry, that is what we are working to reduce as a common goal. Again, it is not an "Us versus Them". If we increase the amount of organic produce grown and consumed in the world, we are creating a healthier planet and population. Jim

Vanessa says …

Other people can eat what they want and if they wish they can purchase organics from China. I don't! for many reasons. The point is as a consumer I have the right to know what I am buying and how and where I spend my money. You are loosing loyal clients and you are taking advantage of the trust we gave you.

Rich says …

I have been a loyal Whole Foods shopper for years, but Whole Foods justification for purchasing organic vegetables for the private label frozen vegetables is nothing more then corporate greed to increase profit margins and the value of their stock at the expense of their customers. Whole Foods, a company that has been ranked for years in the top 100 best companies to work for in the USA, supports a country, China that has and continues to have severe human rights violations fro their citizens. There are plenty of other 3rd world countries that Whole Foods could invest and source organic produce that do not have governments that suppress their people and their freedoms. The whole conversation about whether organic produce from China really meets USDA organic standards is valid, but why would a company that is the leader in the organic food movement and that values it's employees so much not take a stand that they will not purchase produce from China until they have proven they will change the freedoms for their citizens. Would Whole Foods except this kind of treatment for their own employees? At the end of the day when the rubber meets the road, Whole Foods is just like a typical public company that tells a good story be is driven by their shareholders for high returns and profitability, the same as WalMart and others like them. The question is does Whole Foods want to take a stand or compromise their values.

Jim says …

Vanessa, isn't that what I have consistently written in the blog - that consumers should vote with their dollars? I do not understand the latter comment about having the right to know where your product is from. All of the products from China are labeled with their country-of-origin. In our case, the font is the same size as the other legal requirements on the package. Maybe the people taking advantage are not the ones selling organic products from China, but those that would lead you to believe there is something wrong with that. Jim

Tammy says …

I will NEVER purchase foods, supplements or herbs grown in China. Besides not being worth the risk, what about American farmers? Why don't we all just become a bunch of serfs and peasants? Locally grown food is better for our economy and better for our health. In addition, food that is shipped halfway around the world uses a lot of energy. How wasteful is that!!!! We had a thriving organic foods industry in this country prior to the USDA certification program. Like everything else that our government gets involved in, all it has done is make it very expensive to become certified as organic here, so now we are going to import our "organic" food from China.

Rebecca Arnold says …

I will not purchase anything from China. I agree that home grown is better, environmentally, politically and in general more economical. "Organic" in China could mean "night soil". I will not take a chance, I don't care how many "inspectors" have certified that the product is safe.

Jim says …

I really cannot understand some of the comments on this blog about China from people who have obviously not seen China's organic industry first-hand. The Organic Trade Association (http://www.ota.com/index.html) is the foremost proponent of developing the organic food industry in the world. Here are some comments from their recent visit to the organic growing area in China: What kind of "take-away" impression do you have following the tour with regard to organics from China? The most basic “take away” is that we truly are a global society and that increasing organic agriculture and products worldwide is good for everyone. The Chinese farmers we met were concerned about preventing pesticide drift from nearby conventional fields and effectively controlling weeds; and the Chinese consumers we talked to were looking for organic products for an enhanced food safety guarantee and to provide their families with healthy products. Overall, our conversations contained similar concerns and aspirations to what I’ve heard in the United States. What I encountered in China was a dynamic partnership between a group of committed growers, processors and distributors. Together, Jim and his team, have developed a sophisticated system, managed according to the strictest organic standards, that consumers can unequivocally trust. A full report about OTA's China tour will be in their August newsletter. Jim

Rosemary Gibson says …

The steps outlined pertain to 365 Everyday Value items. I am concerned about the bulk items, namely organic walnuts, and the chocolate-covered ginger which reportedly were sourced from China in 2008. What is the country of origin now for these products? And when whill Whole Foods label country of origin on its bulk items? Thank you.

paig292 says …

@Rosemary Our bulk items are purchased on the commodity market, which means that sources vary throughout the year. Also, each of our geographic regions handles their own bulk purchasing to ensure they are meeting their customers’ needs. So, your best bet is to ask your local store’s bulk team members for the sourcing on the products you are interested in. Not the most elegant solution but the best way to make sure you are getting an accurate answer. FYI, all of our 365 snack products (nuts, seeds, etc.) are labeled with their Country of Origin even though it’s not mandated by the government. Just keep in mind that if there is not a Country of Origin listed, it’s grown and packed in the USA. It’s only when it’s not from the USA that we list its source.

Kathey B. says …

I am very pleased to read the response from Whole Foods on the organic products from China. I believe it is right to question the ingredients and origin of what we eat. In this time of communication via the Internet, people can pass a large amount of negative, incorrect and critical information all over the world. I will continue to shop at Whole Foods. The quality and choice of products is incredible.

Charles says …

True, there are many people in China who want to live healthy lives, and also treat their customers with respect and integrity. There are many who do not, however, and simply checking does not work. Look what happened in the melamine in the milk case, even though they were partnering with a New Zealand company known for its healthy products. If someone wants to cheat, they can do it without too much risk. I have lived in China for twenty years, actually longer considering Hong Kong and Taiwan, nearly forty years, and have seen many, many cases where greed generated poor adhesion to standards. It is a case of trust, and Whole Foods corporate gobbledygook does not engender trust; just look at BP's press releases and blogs. The writers appear to come from the same school. Get back to reality and look at the results. Don't just look to the farms; look to the waters into which chemicals are dumped with impunity. Look at the hospitals where there is a flood of people entering with cancer. China has only one sixth of the world's population, yet over one fourth of the world's cancer according to a report in one of China's own newspapers. Visit the hospitals, check with friends; most have horrific stories of cancer. True, there are places in China less polluted; however, those places are disappearing rapidly with industrialization and with tourism. Places that I went twenty years ago even without hotels are now crowded with all of the trappings of modernity. Whole Foods has to get back to basics; engender trust by being in integrity with labeling and sourcing, not just barely meeting standards. After all, with John Mackey's previous use of his wife's reversed name to bash Wild Oats in blogs does not engender the level of trust that one would wish when dealing with one's health.

Emma says …

I am in Chicago and recently I went on a community garden tour where local communities grow their own food in vacant land/parks on membership basis (or so called CSA farm). Having read all the comments it helps me to understand why trust is the foundation for organic food business and how that may be elevated by scrutiny and transparency, which is somewhat lack of in China right now. I believe that situation has already been rapidly changing as the Chinese government and all industries in China took the opportunity of recession for business transformation and upgrading as well as more effective policy enforcement. It surely has a long way to go but positive changes have been made. I agree with Jim as he spoke with evidence and direct experience from China. It is always a good thing to have a different voice and opinion and to appreciate those that don't always agree with the consensus. I hope to see organic farm practice myself in China and find out the real truth! If anyone is interested in organic farming and business in China, please contact me at organicfood.china@gmail.com! Cheers, Emma

dave tabor says …

Thanks for labeling. Buy local means I will never buy from China knowingly. We have not been able to trust them with our toys and building materials, do you really think we can trust them with our food?

Pages