A friend showed me an investigative news piece about Whole Foods 365 Organic Brand products the other day. You can see the investigative news piece in the video below. The gist of the story is that a lot of Whole Foods 365 Organic brand frozen vegetables are a produced in China. Right on the back of the packaging it says “Product of China”. The big issue is the statement that the vegetables are organic. How can Whole Foods really know if the vegetables are organic. The USDA doesn’t inspect imported foods. The USDA certifies private inspectors to do the job outside of the United States. The company that Whole Foods used was Quality Assurance International (QAI). You’ll see in the video that QAI states that they have not certified any products in China. QAI actually sub contracts to yet another certification company on the Chinese farms. It does seem to get kind of muddled.

As it turns out this investigative report is from May of 2008. Whole Foods did respond to this report. You can read their whole response here. Basically, Whole Foods claims that produce from China can be certified organic to the same standards as produce grown in the United States. Here is an excerpt from Whole Foods response regarding organic standards:

“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.”

I personally didn’t like the whole tone of the investigative news piece. I felt like they were trying to make buying organic seem like a waste of money. It was as if they were saying it’s more expensive and you are getting the same old, same old anyway. I disagree. I think buying organic is very important and I am happy to have a place like Whole Foods to shop at. Whole Foods does defend their integrity in their response. It’s worth reading.

Now, having said all that I was very upset to think that whole foods was importing “organic” vegetables from China. Why? Don’t we have enough farms in the United States? Maybe we don’t. I don’t know but China seems pretty far away. This goes back to my blog post about eating LOCAL, ORGANIC, SEASONAL produce. In the winter you may need to buy your local produce from your closest REGIONAL neighbor with a winter growing season. That would probably be California or Florida, maybe even Mexico certainly NOT China.

I did run over to Whole Foods so I could go and read the packaging for myself. I don’t buy frozen vegetables so I have actually never looked at one of their frozen 365 Organic brand packages before. I couldn’t find one package that said “Product of China”. Every bag except one was stamped “Product of USA”.  One of the many bags that I looked at did say it was from Mexico. That is a lot closer than China.

Whole Foods did respond to the claims made in the investigative report. They also tried to make it clear that buying organic from China was the same as buying organic in the United States. I do find it interesting that after their lengthy explanation and defense of the USDA’s organic standards they appear to have stopped buying from China. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled. Whole Foods should be supporting the local organic farmer. That’s who I want to be buying my produce from.

Thank you to the investigative team for bring the produce from China to the public’s attention and thank you to Whole Foods for recognizing that buying vegetables from China wasn’t in their best interest. Local, organic is the way to go. We all need to support our local, organic farmers. The movement of organic, sustainable agriculture has grown and continues to grow. The more we demand this kind of healthy, sustainable farming the more it will grow.

Something to keep in mind about foods labeled “Organic”. In order for food to carry the label “Organic” the food must have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. If a product only has 70% to 94% organic ingredients the label will read “made with organic ingredient”. A product with less than 70% organic ingredients can not carry a label of “organic” or “made with organic ingredients”. Even if a product is made with less than 70% organic ingredients it can still have individual ingredients listed as organic in the ingredients list.

Know what you are buying. Buy organic! Be healthy!

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