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Pundit’s Mailbag — The Irresponsibility Of Whole Foods’ 'Responsibly Grown' Campaign

We ran two pieces related to the new Whole Foods marketing campaign:

Whole Foods’ ‘Responsibly Grown’ Program Turns Out To Be Pretty Irresponsible Implies Other Farmers Are Not ‘Responsible Growers’

A Walk Through Whole Foods And Why Its ‘Responsibly Grown’ Campaign Is Bad For Farmers

And these brought responses from a range of individuals. This one was from a new correspondent, who is involved in helping growers share information under terms permitted by the Capper-Volstead Act:

The indignation I felt as a former apple/pear/cherry grower to the Whole Fools…. oops, Whole Foods commercials will cement the fact that even if one of their stores was nearby, I would elect not to shop there. America’s healthiest grocery store? Surely the most expensive.

—Bruce Grim
Marketing Manager
The Marketing Associations
Wenatchee, Washington

In contrast, this letter came from a correspondent who has often contributed to our pages, including pieces such as these:

Why The Secrecy On Inspection Agency Lab Results?

Dole’s Schwartz Sheds More Light On Recent Recall

Pundit’s Mailbag — Dole’s Schwartz Comments On Silent Buyers

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Dole Vegetables’ Eric Schwartz

Pundit’s Mailbag — How About Subsidy Money For GTIN Conversion?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Dole’s Schwartz Comments On Silent Buyers

Pundit’s Mailbag — More Questions About Leafy Greens Board

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Deadline Approaches

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s ‘Situational’ Standard

Single Step Award Winner — Eric Schwartz Of Dole Vegetables

Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA’s Opportunity To Learn From Friends And Foes

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Deadline Approaches

Pundit’s Mailbag — Lesson From Avocadogate: You Get What You Tolerate

Dole Hit With Another Recall

Dole’s Schwartz Sheds More Light On Recent Recall

Arizona Marketing Agreement One Step Closer To National Leafy Green Standard

Now this correspondent weighs in on Whole Foods and its new marketing campaign:

Thank you for addressing the inherent issues in the Whole Foods Responsibly Grown Rating System. Some other big questions that come to mind include pricing strategies for the different levels, how claims for product shrink will be addressed with growers when consumers start leaving the ‘Unrated’ or ‘Good’ product behind, or what growers will be expected to do when there is an industrywide shortage and only the growers ‘in transition’ have product.

It is not uncommon to find a small family farm in the vegetable growing industry, working dawn to dusk to deliver safe, wholesome, high quality products. However, because that small farm may never be in a position to install solar panels, be an industry leader in pest management, or protect bees and butterflies, they should not be penalized at the shelf either.

—Eric Schwartz
United Vegetable Growers Cooperative
Salinas, California

Bruce’s outrage was echoed in the outcry we heard from many growers, and Eric’s analysis of the situation is insightful.

For us, there are a few key points:

1) The Whole Foods standards are arbitrary. For example, any use of irradiation precludes inclusion in Good, Better or Best standards — but there are products, say Indian mangos, that are not admissible in the US without irradiation. Whole Foods says of its system that: “We measure performance and award points based on each farm’s progress in key areas of sustainability.” But how is it sustainable for these poor Indian growers to just give up on the US market?  

2) There is no sense of costs and benefits. Every farm is different, and every crop is different. What if using a small amount of one pesticide eliminates the need for large amounts of other pesticides? What if using small amounts of one pesticide enables such a large increase in yield that the farm can pay its workers better or donate in its community generously. What if adding solar panels reduces the carbon footprint on the farm but removes valuable acreage from food production?

3) Is this all a distinction without a difference? In our piece A Walk Through Whole Foods And Why Its ‘Responsibly Grown’ Campaign Is Bad For Farmers, we went into a local Whole Foods and found the vendors were, pretty much, the same vendors one can find in quality supermarkets across the country. Whole Foods has gotten to a scale now where it needs to access the global produce supply chain. The notion that there is some special Whole Foods supply chain that doesn’t sell to the rest of American retailing is pretty much a myth.

4) Whole Foods has no capability to enforce these standards even if it cared to do so. We recently wrote here about a Los Angeles Times story on labor practices in Mexico. When it turned out that Whole Foods was one of the companies that had received produce from one of the suspect farms, Whole Foods responded by saying that the producer had “signed our social accountability agreement.” Note what Whole Foods did NOT say: It didn’t say that it hires Primus to inspect every farm every week to confirm compliance with its standards. It did not say that there is a Whole Foods employee in every field every day. It didn’t say that Whole Foods voluntarily pay $2US per pound over the market to get superior labor treatment. It just said that to get Whole Foods’ business companies simply have to sign a paper!

In the end, Whole Foods is telling everyone in America that it has a uniquely responsible supply chain — put another way, it is telling consumers that when they buy produce elsewhere, consumers are supporting irresponsible growing. That message is not true, and it is bound to depress consumption, which will hurt both farmers and the health of consumers. What kind of “values” would support such a campaign?

Many thanks to Bruce Grim and Eric Schwartz for weighing in on this important issue.

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