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

JIM says …

As I have mentioned, there is no excuse for greed that leads to environmental or food safety problems. There are good companies in China, so do not through an entire culture under the bus due to a few bad apples. Remember, it was not that long ago U.S. manufacturers brought us asbestos, so we are not immune to product safety issues right here at home. Yes, I do trust the farmers and manufacturers of food products in China. They are very focused on learning from the issues that occurred in the past and preventing their recurrence. Developing standards and making an extra effort to ensure product quality and safety is both the responsibility of the exporting and importing country. I am seeing this cooperation in the business that I do in China, and I do see the Chinese government taking this issue very seriously. I continue to buy local and support my local farmers as much as possible. I also believe in supporting the hardworking family farmers in China, or elsewhere in the world. We need to consume more healthy foods, and if imports can help us achieve that aim, then they should supplement our local sources. Jim

Sam Taylor says …

I'm happy to read that you have stopped the sourcing of foods from China, excepting Edamame. May I suggest that this also be stopped? If enough organic farmers in the US realize the size of the market for organic edamame, they may well match or nearly match the Chinese option. Even having read all of your explanations, I still don't trust Chinese produce to be really organic. The country's waters and land are just too polluted right now. Perhaps in the future.

Sky says …

I don't care how Whole Foods Corporate spins this, they should not offer food from China at all, especially organic. China cheats on EVERYTHING and they are laughing at your buyers when they leave to think how dumb you'd be to think their food is actually organic or not full of dangerous pesticides. They will put on a show for you when you visit, but after, they will cut every corner and use whatever chemical they can to save money/make money. Whole Foods knows better, they just are Greedy in this case. Put the label MADE IN CHINA on the front in letters big enough to actually notice and you know NO ONE will buy this garbage. Quit trying to sneak in things like this...just do the right thing always and don't be so greedy...people will understand the truth and pay more if needed, but don't try to sneak China food by us with tiny country names on the back of products. With the social media power today, you could find your stores in a huge boycott almost overnight if this goes viral. You guys would make money not doing this sneaking stuff at all, so why would you even risk it? I also saw where the state of california sued you for putting nasty chemicals in so called "Organic" and "Natural" hair and skin care products, WTF? Why would you undermine the trust of your customers with this sneaky and greedy actions? I suggest the top people have a pow wow and rewrite you value and mission statement to not pull any more of these sneaky tricks again...go clean from here on in. Like Domino's Pizza did...what a success that was. I'm sure your still sneaking more things like the China veggies and the dangerous shampoos...so fess up, stop it, and reap the rewards.

Cherie says …

Where are your chanterelle mushrooms from? In the store I was at in Vancouver, the label DID NOT say!

frank albergo says …

i am sorry. when i saw the abc piece i was shocked!!!! outraged!!! even if it says organic and it is from china it is not to be trusted. you guys really blew it. this was not a smart business decision and you have violated a trust. i will think twice before stepping into a whole foods again. frank

says …

@Marcia Thank you for reaching out and giving us an opportunity to continue the discussion. We only discriminate when it comes to quality and taste, not country of origin. Whole Foods Market continues to buy from China because we believe in supporting farmers that provide high quality products. Our strategy is not to run away from our Chinese suppliers, but to take a stand and get closer to our suppliers. We will continue to improve on the audit and testing procedures that are already in place. Organic farming has a long history in China. Our strategy is to build long term partnerships with our Chinese suppliers. We are confident in the quality and integrity of our products from all countries, including China. As the world population grows, we are going to be forced to look at our supply chains and develop emerging organic suppliers all over the world. The steps we are taking now will assure the long term quality of our supply as we look beyond the United States for organic food solutions. If you have further questions about our products and buying protocols feel free to connect with our private label team at privatelabel.customerservice@wholefoods.com.

Ann says …

I am Asian and my friends and family are multi-generational American Asians. None of us will buy any food from China. We don't trust any labeling from China. We feel the Chinese has brought shame to the Asian community by making short term profit from unsafe, poisonous, and fake products. Did you know that the Chinese even make fake EGGS? The Asians are embarrassed by the obvious greed and the lost of trust by the world consumers will be hard to win back.

Marcia says …

Wow, am I late to the party on this one. I just had the video e-mailed to me and didn't realize this was from a couple of years ago. I have completely lost faith in the Whole Foods brand. Please don't insult our intelligence with your exhaustive explanation of why we can trust "organic" produce from China. I've had discussions with some of your seafood personnel about all of the fish that you source from Asia (responsibly farmed I'm assured). I'm sure today's news story about the filthy seafood coming in form overseas can be applied to the products your buyers procure as well if it can help with that stock price. I'm going to skip the 365 brand completely now and will only shop at WF when necessary. It is a shame that such a high caliber company has become another Wal-Mart. I'll make sure everyone that I know that shops at WF sees the video on this as well. Kudos for doing the right thing after the PR disaster but it truly leaves your general corporate integrity in question overall. I've been a customer since the late 90's and so sad to see that you've sold out.

John Gunther says …

I recently watched the video on Eros. Watching it reminded me just how important it is for people to be aware of the journey a product takes before it hits the shelves. After seeing the attention that Eros pays to the environment I am certainly more inclined to give there product a shot. When a customer came through with a case of the product I was so eager to tell her about their methods of production. She loved the product and was thrilled to hear how thorough they were in their mission of helping the environment.

Veronica Johnson says …

How sustainable is getting any food from China? Regardless of organic standards, that's a lot of fuel and a huge waste of natural resources!

BONNIE says …

I just got the link below, but don't know if it's for real, or from quite a long time ago. I asked about it in my local store yesterday and no one knew about it or had any interest in speaking to me about it. http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=JQ31Ljd9T_Y thanks for your help w/understanding this.

says …

@Bonnie This was a media push from some time ago. Since this is an issue that many were concerned with, for the best way to get acquainted with the situation and the current information, I recommend you read the blog post and all the response comments from Team Members on the blog. There is a lot of great information shared there. Thanks for reaching out and your willingness to work with us to stop the spread of misinformation.

Jim Breneman says …

I have read your response to the WJLA 2008 report and was happy to see that you no longer use "organic" foods from China in your frozen offerings. Being very familiar with certification and accreditation and having traveled to China I can offer the following opinion. The fact that some (most often in-country) "inspector" or Quality Assurance person(s) have passed a process as being (in your case) "organic" is farcical at best. In addition to the recent problems with food safety in China I have been witness to local inspectors "passing" processes and later finding that they did not even look at them. My hat is off to you for responding to your customers in the US.. and I will continue to buy at Whole Foods and (of course) look at the country of origin for ALL my food.

Mark W., Sonoma County, CA says …

I would not buy the food if I new it was from China. This news is way too late for me.

Kay Hamme says …

I don't care what you say, food products from China do not belong in Whole Foods. I will never buy them. I am very disappointed and believe that by selling these products you are damaging your brand.

says …

@Kay Please see the most up to date information regarding our sourcing. The only organic item we now source from China are the 365 Edamame. The newest information can be found in the team member responses from earlier posts. Thank you.

Amanda says …

Wow, I'm another one that is late to this party as I just received the video link via an email. What saddens me most is that two of the WF's core values I had come to understand was local farm support and sustainability. How can we support our local farms -- whether in our county or country -- when WF is sourcing food from not just another country, but one from the opposite side of the globe? Specialty products for shoppers who desire ingredients for cultural recipes makes complete sense...but how can WF justify other more common products that are grown locally, and even on the same continent? The cost of fuel used to transport produce from China is especially shameful when we all know high-quality produce is available at a fraction the fuel cost. While I truly appreciate the business perspective (I am a capitalist), I do not condone business profits over values, especially when that is NOT the message advertised throughout the store. I'm one of the lucky ones, living in a state where other organic options are more available than in other locals. I already pay a premium for (what I thought was) organically grown food for my family. I guess more of my large monthly food budget will be going to farmers markets and New Seasons. Honestly, even though this news is 18+ months old, my opinion of and trust in WF is shaken. I feel like someone bumped the mask and I peeked Wal-Mart behind the Whole Foods logo.

Jane Fraga says …

I resonate with many of the posts that express concern about consuming anything from China for 2 reasons: 1) I sat on a bus with a college student from China who said his own home town has been so polluted the people can barely drink the water or plant a garden. The air, water, soil concerns in China trump any certification about farming practices. We are unable to get edamame from the US because?? 2) We shoot ourselves in the foot by insisting on natural & organic farming practices, while supporting the use of petroleum to transport products across continents that we can access from a closer location. This is insanity.

Super Girls says …

your site is very interesting, i have read a few of the articles on your website now..... and i add this site to my bookmarks....

says …

@P.Allen Please read the most up-to-date information. The article to which you're referring is 4.5 years old now and full of information that is no longer accurate. You can read the most recent response here. http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2012/03/dispelling-rumors-organics-from-china/

P. Allen says …

I just saw the ABC piece in e-mail. I am furious that I have been a loyal WF customer for years and never suspected something like this. I passed along the link to my entire address book. Former Customer

Randy says …

I wanted to comment on the China and organic products. After the baby food problem they had awhile back I for one can not see how anyone could trust these people.

Amonnaempinee says …

Hi everyone, am from Aurora.. this forum and coomunity looks nice.. i am looking forward to have good time here.. currently i am not active member of any forum, but this community appeals me looking forward to have some good time

consultant china says …

China has now become a big exporter of organic food. Also, in China's domestic market, the online trade volume of organic food has been increasing. This is an article I wrote about organic food market in China. http://daxueconsulting.com/organic-food-in-china/ Hope you can read it and we may exchange ideas.

Dave Dalzell says …

Learning of this large scale deception only conjures up the expression, 'how the mighty have fallen'. In a shameless quest for profits the core principal of local, pesticide free food can no longer be a legitimate claim for this once great food chain. Outrageous to see that the country of origin for the 'wildflower honey' I just bought is India and Brazil. Food from China is everywhere at Whole Foods, and is one hundred percent ghastly. This is a stain on their credibility that they can never recover from.

Alex says …

Yes the human sewage (especially urea) and human hair protein Chinese organic farmers put on crops to make them grow faster and make then shiny are 100% organic.

Tara says …

As of March 2014 where does Whole Foods stand on this topic? I just purchased organic 365 label sunflower seeds that come from China. Why is Whole Foods confident of their quality?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@TARA - You can find an updated post about organics from China at http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/whole-story/dispelling-rumors-organics-china.

Lori O'Donnell says …

Where is whole foods chocolate from and is the country of orgin clearly labeled on each product? Where is whole foods organic sugar grown/processed?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@LORI - The country of origin should be named on the product.

Carmen says …

The only way to know the food is organic is to visit the farmer and see what his farming practices are. Small farms in rural china most often use organic methods of farming because that's the only method they know. Food grown in china 30 something years ago was all completely organic. Organic waste, human waste was composted and then diluted and ladled onto the crops. There are still farmers that painstakingly try to be organic. Too bad the human greed of a few have to ruin the entire country. As for people who say they'll never buy food from china due to pollution, take a closer look to home before blasting china. Texas grown rice is heaviest in arsenic levels. The good old usa is also full of heavily polluted cities. Fix those before blasting everyone else. Relax, Chinese food exported to good old usa is safe. Exported foods overseas are held to a higher standard than foods sold inside the country.

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