Whole Foods Market responds to WJLA
This is a response to a news segment aired on WJLA (Washington, DC) on May 21, 2008.
I’m Joe Dickson, Organic Certification Coordinator for Whole Foods Market. I read WJLA’s news script with disbelief and disappointment, as it is totally misleading. To help clarify, I have taken the time to address the various claims made in the news segment to offer clarification and our point of view.
ANCHOR: TONIGHT – AN I-TEAM INVESTIGATION. WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT ORGANIC FOODS? IT’S PESTICIDE FREE AND MORE EXPENSIVE…BUT IT’S WORTH IT… RIGHT? NOT NECESSARILY. WOULD YOU BELIEVE *ORGANICALLY GROWN* IN CHINA? HOW ORGANIC CAN THAT BE? THE I-Team’s ROBERTA BASKIN HAS BEEN INVESTIGATING AND HAS QUESTIONS FOR ONE MAJOR FOOD CHAIN.
Organic products from China can absolutely be certified organic to the exact same standard as domestic products. While China has had a number of food quality issues in the news in the past year, it does not mean everything grown in the entire country is unsafe. Since 2002, the USDA’s National Organic Standards have governed exactly what can be sold as organic in the US – how it’s grown, processed and handled – regardless of where in the world it’s grown, INCLUDING China. Organic integrity is ensured every step of the way. For example, a broccoli grower in China must be visited and certified to the USDA organic standards by a certifying agent that is approved and supervised by the USDA. If that broccoli is processed in a packaging plant, that plant must also be visited and certified by a certifying agent, who verifies that the handling and ingredients of the product comply with the standard.
This structure is the backbone of organic integrity under the USDA organic standard – everyone who grows or handles organic food must be certified and audited by a USDA-accredited certifier. The USDA then provides audits and oversight of the certifiers to ensure that they are enforcing the standard and upholding organic integrity.
ROBERTA IN STUDIO: WHOLE FOODS… IT’S THE LEADING FOOD RETAILER SELLING THE IMAGE THAT LOCAL AND ORGANIC IS BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND BETTER FOR YOU. BUT IS THAT …IN FACT…WHAT THE CUSTOMER IS GETTING?
IT SURELY IS! Whole Foods Market is a pioneer in promoting and selling natural and organic foods and we have done more in our history as a company to promote and build organics than any other retailer. We were the first national certified organic retailer under the USDA’s organic standards, a voluntary certification which we continue to undergo to ensure to our customers that what we’re selling as organic truly is. Even though retailers aren’t required to be certified, and very few are, we decided to allow California Certified Organic Farmers into our stores to verify that we purchase, handle and sell organic food in compliance with the standard. Read more about this program here: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/values/organic.php
This is not “selling an image;” this is actually making sure that every one of our 275 stores is operating in compliance with the National Organic Standards and upholding organic integrity in everything they do.
STORY: WITH 175 STORES… WHOLE FOODS IS THE UNDISPUTED LEADER IN ORGANIC FOODS AND PROMOTES “LOCALLY GROWN.” BUT THE I-TEAM HAS FOUND THAT MUCH OF WHOLE FOODS ORGANICS… ARE IMPORTED FROM CHINA.
Actually, we have 275 stores. Again, WJLA is misleading consumers. Of the thousands of private label products we offer, a very small percentage are from China. And even though it is not currently required, we label the country of origin on each of these products.
Shopper: “Honestly I never would have flipped it over to see that it was from China.”
SPINACH…. SUGAR SNAP PEAS… AND WOULD YOU BELIEVE CALIFORNIA BLEND VEGETABLES? ALL LISTED UNDER THE WHOLE FOODS BRAND “365 ORGANIC.” AND ON THE BACK IN SMALL PRINT… PRODUCT OF CHINA.
“California blend” is a very common term for a blend of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. Many other frozen vegetable companies offer this blend of vegetables that are not literally grown in California.
ORGANIC ENSURES NO CHEMICAL PESTICIDES AND ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CONDITIONS. BUT HOW DO WE EVEN KNOW THE FOOD IS ORGANIC? FOODS SOLD IN THIS COUNTRY MUST BE APPROVED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE BEFORE THEY CAN DISPLAY THE ORGANIC LABEL.
“The oversight that they have in China is not the same kind of supervision that we have in the United States.”
ANY product that is going to be sold as organic in the US must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifier, period. The Chinese government does not certify US-bound organic product in China; that certification is done by USDA-accredited certifiers who are themselves reviewed, approved and accredited directly by the USDA.
BUT THE USDA DOESN’T INSPECT IMPORTED FOODS. IT CERTIFIES PRIVATE INSPECTORS TO DO THE JOB. WHOLE FOODS EMPLOYS A COMPANY CALLED QUALITY ASSURANCE INTERNATIONAL. BUT THE COMPANY CONFIRMS “QAI HAS NOT CERTIFIED ANY PRODUCTS IN CHINA.” THEY RELY ON ANOTHER CERTIFIER ON THE FARM. YET THERE’S THE QAI CERTIFICATION SEAL… THE USDA SEAL…. AND PRODUCT OF CHINA…ALL ON THE SAME WHOLE FOODS PACKAGE.
QAI’s seal on our package means that our independent certifier, QAI, has confirmed that we have sourced it from a certified organic operation. QAI allows us to place their seal on our label to show that they have verified that the products have been certified.
Linda Greer: ”So you have to ask yourself the question, how would they ever know if the organic rules are being followed?”
LINDA GREER IS A SENIOR SCIENTIST AT THE NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY GROUP. SHE’S BEEN TO FARMS IN CHINA.
Linda Greer: ”I wouldn’t buy something organic from China with the idea that it’s truly organic.”
We routinely visit farms supplying our products all over the world. Here are some standards we apply to the organic farms and facilities we work with in China:
√ Organic certification to the USDA organic standard by USDA-accredited certifiers
√ Food safety audits by accredited companies using internationally recognized standards
√ Targeted social accountability assessments using world class auditing agencies
√ Supplementary verification to validate the aspects above
√ Random testing of finished product for safety and organic integrity, including tests for environmental contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides.
BASKIN: “Why not?”
LG: “The reason is we’ve had such a difficult time tracking things.”
Whole Foods Market has instituted the quality systems and safeguards above to make sure our organic private label products meet our own quality standards and the National Organic Standards as well.
THERE’S GROWING CONCERN ABOUT THE QUALITY OF FOOD FROM CHINA. ALREADY THIS YEAR THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION WHICH CHECKS FOR FOOD SAFETY STOPPED 260 SHIPMENTS OF FOODS LIKE STRAWBERRIES CONTAMINATED WITH BAD PESTICIDES, BACTERIA OR FILTH.
Linda Greer: “I think it’s probably not an accident that product of China is in such small type.”
It’s not currently required that we state the country of origin on packaging, but we feel it’s right to provide this information to our customers. We follow FDA guidelines regarding the print size, and this size is no different for China than any other country, including the USA.
THE I-TEAM OBTAINED THIS INTERNAL COMPANY DOCUMENT FROM WHOLE FOODS LISTING THE COUNTRY OF ORIGIN FOR HUNDREDS OF ITS PRODUCTS…DOZENS OF ORGANICS….MANY FROM CHINA…EVERYTHING FROM ASPARAGUS SPEARS TO PINE NUTS TO CREAMY PEANUT BUTTER. WHOLE FOODS WOULDN’T ALLOW OUR CAMERAS IN ITS STORE, SO WE BOUGHT THE PRODUCTS AND STEPPED OUTSIDE TO SHOW SHOPPERS.
This is a document, which contains a representative sample of our private label products, is intended to help educate the team members in our stores about where our products come from.
We are not keeping secrets here. We print the country of origin right on our product packaging! We choose to supply this information because we have faith in the quality of our products.
Mom: “It’s definitely misleading. If they were proud of it being from China, they would be, it would be prominently displayed on the front. I’m sure.”
SHOPPERS WE TALKED TO WERE MOST SURPRISED BY WHOLE FOODS ORGANIC CALIFORNIA BLEND OF CAULIFLOWER, CARROTS, AND BROCCOLI.
“If they’re going to put into bold “California” on the label, they shouldn’t put China in fine print on the back.”
Again, “California blend” is a common term for a blend of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots and this blend is produced by many frozen vegetable producers that use vegetables not literally grown in California. We do find that this is legitimate feedback, and we are looking at ways of making this clearer to our customers.
WE ALSO WENT TO THE FRESHFARM MARKETS AT DUPONT CIRCLE… WHERE PEOPLE TAKE THEIR ORGANIC FOOD VERY SERIOUSLY.
Zachariah “Oh, but it’s from China, what a travesty.”
“Product of China! Whoa, look at that!”
BERNADINE PRINCE, FOUNDER OF THIS MARKET SAYS WHOLE FOODS SHOPPERS SHOULD BE ASKING QUESTIONS.
Prince: “The first thing I would do is say, ‘Okay Whole Foods, is this really organic?” ”How do you know it’s organic? Because I don’t know.”
As we described above, we go above and beyond the USDA’s already strong requirements to make sure that the products we sell from all countries are truly organic.
LINDA GREER SAYS PEOPLE SHOULD BE ASKING THE GOVERNMENT QUESTIONS.
Linda Greer: “Consumers are probably blissfully unaware that the government is not protecting them.”
The government has a strong standard for the production of organic food. Prior to 2002, there was no federal definition of organic. Along with many other pioneers, we fought hard to make sure that the government created a strong definition of organic, which became a reality through the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which directed the USDA to create the National Organic Standards. They created these standards with the guidance and direction of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen advisory board made up of growers, ranchers, environmentalists, certifiers and other organic stakeholders. This board continues to closely monitor the organic standards and ensure that it meets customers expectations. Since 2002, for the first time in history, consumers know that food sold as organic in the US meets a strict definition, no matter where it’s grown. The USDA oversees 90+ accredited certifiers with regular audits and supervision, and investigates any public complaints of violations of the standards. Leaders from Whole Foods Market take a very active role in the standard, attending NOSB meetings and taking a vocal role in ensuring a strong organic standard. We’ve fought for a meaningful definition of “organic” for 28 years, and intend to keep doing so. Our customers have come to trust us in guaranteeing the quality, safety and integrity of all our products, and this trust is something we take very seriously.