The Whole Foods Labeling Debate

Sloughing through the grocery aisle is difficult enough these days, with labels like “non-GMO”, “organic”, and “USDA approved” stamped- oftentimes recklessly, as with the case of the misleading “all-natural” sticker -above rows of both produce and dry foods alike. While a superior diet inarguably consists of 100% organic food, Whole Foods Market’s recent announcement of their entirely new produce labeling system is causing a stir with organic farmers…and for good reason.

“Responsibly Grown”
Whole Foods’ global produce coordinator Matt Rogers says that the major grocery chain’s new labeling system, called Responsibly Grown, “is a way to give customers more information about how their food is grown”.

The new system is intended to inform Whole Foods shoppers of more than just the origin and category (i.e. organic/conventional) of the produce they may purchase, expanding to include 1 of 4 grades: Unrated, Good, Better, or Best. The criteria with which Whole Foods will judge their suppliers is as follows:

  • How they protect the wildlife and soil on the farm
  • Whether they limit their use of pesticides
  • How they conserve irrigation water and energy
  • How they treat their workers

Each supplier is asked to pay a fee in order to participate in this new labeling system.

Another Organic Obstacle

Besides the fee required in order to qualify for the Responsibly Grown system, which California-based organic farmer Vernon Peterson claims costs small farmers like himself thousands of dollars in paperwork and product shipment tracking, several organic farmers have raised their voices in protest because they believe Whole Foods is attempting to devalue the meaning of the certified organic label.

With this new system, Whole Foods will essentially have created their own inclusive labeling guidelines that operate free of judgment from the FDA and the USDA (organizations that impose strict rules for certified organic farming and labeling). The mounting concern of organic farmers revolves around the idea that the Responsibly Grown grading system is not only diminishing the intrinsic value of “certified organic”, but threatening the fundamental importance of organic produce.

Whole Foods assures its customers that Responsibly Grown is simply meant to “complement” their organic produce, but according to NPR reporter Dan Charles:

I found nonorganic onions and tomatoes, presumably grown with standard fertilizers and pesticides, that were labeled “Best.” A few feet away, I found organic onions and tomatoes that were graded merely “Good” or just “Unrated.”

While organic farmers like Peterson and Tom Willey have no issue with Whole Foods’ attempt to recognize sustainable farming practices, the crux of their frustration lies with the idea that this new labeling system primarily serves to profit conventional produce; considering the recent trend in organic purchasing, Whole Foods motives are being called into question.

Known Benefits of Organic Farming

As thoroughly studied in our previous article Healthy Spring Feasts (and How to Shop Organic), the definition of organic is as follows:

Organic refers to a carbon-based method of farming, meaning the foods are grown with the exclusion of industry-standard practices like pesticides, genetically modified agents, hormones, and antibiotics.

In other words, a 100% organic food is one that is grown without any trace of unnatural pesticides and/or herbicides. To briefly summarize:

Despite Whole Foods’ reassurances, the concerns of organic farmers like Vernon Peterson- that the “Responsibly Grown” stamp will not only confuse consumers, but mislead them into purchasing conventionally grown produce -justifiably remain open-ended.