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Whole Foods Shakes Down Organic Farmers

Is Whole Foods Markets Throwing Organic Farmers
Under the Bus to Fund Grocer’s Marketing Program?

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Incensed and insulted, five of the most respected and influential, veteran Certified Organic farmers in the nation have sent the CEO of Whole Foods Market a letter calling the company’s new “Responsibly Grown” produce marketing scheme “onerous and expensive” and stating that it devalues the Certified Organic label.

The signatories come from California and Pennsylvania. They, along with many other growers around the country who felt unable to speak on the record for fear of risking their livelihoods as Whole Foods suppliers, express concern that the giant retailer is setting aside decades of partnership with farmers in building the organic movement to pursue an ill-advised, self-serving marketing program.

Their letter was addressed to the corporation’s Chief Executive Officer, John Mackey.

Whole Foods’ growth, with annual sales approaching $15 billion, has run into strong headwinds in the maturing marketplace for organic food. Same-store sales are flat and other retailers are gaining market share from a company that has long had a reputation for being top-quality, but expensive, earning the nickname “Whole Paycheck.” The iconic natural foods grocer has more than 400 stores.

One of the signatories, Tom Willey, of T&D Willey Farms, located in Madera, California, is a longtime Whole Foods supplier. “Intending to create a value-added image for the conventional produce on their shelves, Whole Foods is undermining the work my family and I have done, along with so many others in the organic farming movement, to create a Certified Organic ‘gold standard’ in terms of safe food production,” Willey said.

While devising a new labeling program that identifies fruits and vegetables as “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” Whole Foods is asking the growers to pay for participating in the retailer’s verification program.

Another signatory to the letter, Jim Crawford, founder of New Morning Farm in Hustontown, Pennsylvania, said numerous growers reported that their cost to comply with Whole Foods’ new program ranges from $5,000 to $20,000. “That is not an inconsequential sum for medium-sized, established organic growers like myself. But this cost, and the added labor to administer the program, could be impossible for some smaller and new-entry farmers to absorb,” stated Crawford.

“I call this marketing model ‘Robin Hood in reverse’,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “Although their market capitalization has taken quite a hit recently, at over $14 billion Whole Foods remains one of the wealthiest grocers in the United States. In an effort to enhance their image, they are asking modestly scaled family farmers to pick up the tab for a program whose benefits will almost exclusively accrue to the corporation,” Kastel stated.

One of the most objectionable elements of the “Responsibly Grown” program, for farmers, is the company’s alleged attempt to devalue the importance of the Certified Organic label in terms of customer perception. Under the Whole Foods program, conventionally grown produce, treated with toxic agrochemicals, can be rated higher than Certified Organic produce, which is grown under strict, legally enforced compliance overseen by the USDA.

An example of this grievance is clearly illustrated in photos taken this spring at Whole Foods stores in California. The company was selling conventionally grown asparagus, imported from Mexico, at $4.99 per pound with signage identifying it as “Best.” 

AsparagusConventional

Simultaneously, the grocer was offering locally grown, Certified Organic asparagus for $7.99 per pound, which only garnered the stores’ lowest rating, “Good.”

AsparagusOrganic

“Why would a customer pay three dollars more per pound for the Certified Organic asparagus when they could buy what a trusted retailer has labeled ‘Best’?” asked Kastel.

Because T&D Willey Farms has not yet complied with Whole Foods’ program, their produce is currently labeled “Unrated.” “I am most assuredly rated!” said Willey. “I have been Certified Organic for 28 years and my farm undergoes a rigorous annual physical inspection and auditing by CCOF, an independent certifier, accredited by the USDA. That’s a pretty high rating in my book.”

This is not the first time The Cornucopia Institute has referred to some of Whole Foods’ marketing tactics as “bait and switch.”

“Here is a business that touts their status as being the nation’s first national Certified Organic grocery chain,” Cornucopia’s Kastel explained. “In their marketing materials and signage they are constantly promoting their dedication to organic agriculture. But when you shop at their stores, you might notice that a high percentage of their offerings are not actually organic. Now the ‘Responsibly Grown’ program is attempting to put some of this conventional food on a pedestal higher than organic,” Kastel lamented.

Whole Foods has long been criticized by some in the organic movement for developing a proprietary meat department rating system, which predominately sells premium-priced conventional meat labeled as “natural.”

“The meat Whole Foods sells that is not Certified Organic was produced from livestock that were fed conventional feed, almost assuredly genetically modified, and, based on USDA research, likely contaminated with agrochemical residues,” Kastel added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are traces of 29 different pesticides in the average American’s body. Dr. Michael Crupain, Director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports, states, “We’re exposed to a cocktail of chemicals from our food on a daily basis.”

Although the new Whole Foods rating system bans a selected list of synthetic pesticides, most toxic agrochemicals are still available for their conventional growers to use based on the company’s “Responsibly Grown” protocols.

For example, the USDA’s National Organic Program bans the use of antibiotics, sprayed on fruit trees to control the bacterial disease fireblight, in apple and pear orchards. The agency also bans the use of synthetic mold and sprout inhibitors, sprayed on the skins of potatoes after harvest. However, these materials can be used on fruits and vegetables that receive the “Best” rating under Whole Foods’ new approach.

“Undoubtedly, based on research, some of the produce that Whole Foods has rated ‘Best’ carries detectable levels of pesticides demonstrably higher than anything that would be found on Certified Organic produce,” added Kastel.

Tom Willey, who farms year-round in California’s San Joaquin Valley, added, “If Whole Foods truly is committed to the values they expound, nothing in their stores should be rated ‘Better’ or ‘Best’ unless it first passes muster under the strict regulations Congress designated when they passed the Organic Foods Production Act.”

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Jim Crawford, of New Morning Farm, and Tom Willey, of T&D Willey Farms, were both recognized in a 2014 gathering, covered by the New York Times, of “Organic Elders” who founded the organic movement. Crawford thinks Whole Foods’ marketing program is unfairly burdensome and expensive for farmers, especially smaller-scale ones, but he says that’s not the worst aspect of it.

More harmful, he says, is the fact that the program deceives consumers in their perception of which foods deserve to be rated “Best.” “It’s a privately dreamed up, proprietary food-rating system directly contrasting and competing with a publicly created system, USDA Certified Organic, which was painstakingly developed over years and is administered rigorously and with verifiability.”

Crawford thinks it especially ironic that the private Whole Foods program is made to appear more demanding, more rigorous, and more restrictive than Certified Organic. “In reality, it is drastically more permissive, especially in the area of pesticide use, and not rigorous or verifiable at all in the way it’s administered,” Crawford said.

And, unlike within the USDA National Organic Program, farmers participating in Whole Foods’ labeling campaign are not subject to annual, on-site inspections or audits of the paper trail for their farm inputs and all sales to assure compliance. Nor could any detected malfeasance lead to large fines and other sanctions.

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Dinner at Cecconi’s

So nice to be able to treat my parents for a change to an amazing dinner at Cecconi’s Restaurant Los Angeles.  Beautiful patio table, open skylight, moon and stars overhead, amazing food and crisp, light wine on a gorgeous Indian Summer Night in WEHO.  My mom and I had the in-house made spaghetti with Lobster (of course!).  My dad had the (wild pig) double pork chop.  So good it was ridiculous.  And the staff was tops! We had fun.  Chef Cavaliere You Rock My World!  More Italian for these Sicilians please!  lol


August 25 – National Banana Split Day

Today is definitely the day.  I am going on the hunt for the best one in LA – or at least one that I can find in 24 hours.  Suggestions and tips welcome!!!

August 25 – National Banana Split Day. (From our friend John-Bryan Hopkins at Foodimentary.com)


Food Trends and New Friends

There I am at the epicenter of the Cafe Fiore tasting, as the ultimate muti-tasker, able to sample the entire menu and talk about it with other food critics without even so much as a pause!  lol  Read the story: http://giaonthemove.com/2012/08/19/pizza-naturally-la-food-trends-update/


June 15 Is National Flip Flop Day and Tag Your It! – Good Earth Tea Has A Contest. You’ll want to check out this article for a fun contest that will get you in the headlines. And Happy Flip Flop wearing! lol We may be having June gloom in the early mornings here in Los Angeles but the days have been SWEET! In other news, the Hollywood Fringe Festival now in full Swing and the shows this year are putting out some seriously awesome entertainment. Get Out and GET SOME CULTURE!!! Get a ticket! http://www.hollywoodfringe.org


Dine Me Don’t Whine Me

I love to eat.  But I prefer to dine.

Sure I could veg out in front of my tv on the couch focusing on what’s in front of me instead of what I’m putting in me.  Yes, I suppose I could stand at the kitchen counter devouring instantaneously whatever it is I whipped up on the stove pretending that I’ve somehow nutrified my body with my protein packed 7 egg whites alone inducing that quieting sensation that temporarily disengages me from my obsessive compulsive behavioral ideas on how I am going to retain body muscle through my diet every day.  And I’ll admit that the convenience of drive through really seems inviting when I’ve waited far too long to make a better decision about how to feed myself.

But really, why would I.  I like pauses.  I like taking my time.  Savoring, sipping and satisfying my taste buds with aromas, flavors and small samples of my favorite delicacies even if they are only french fries.  I like sitting upright at a table rather than on a stool hunching over to slurp my food like an animal. It’s so much more pleasant and incredibly better for my digestion – not to mention my dry cleaning bill. It actually alleviates my nervous system quite a bit from all of the stress I’ve encountered throughout the day. It’s definitely a lot less frenetic that attempting to multi-task without spilling crumbs, liquids and sauces on my keyboard while typing on my 27 inch iMAC. And honestly, it really is annoying watching you dart back and forth doing ‘stuff’, something else more ‘pressing’ that is going to get you in the media, more organized, more famous, more money, more clients, more auditions, more business, or texting (worse) and not giving a damn about the surroundings, the time it took for this delicious meal to be prepared, how someone gave a damn to make it in the first place, listening to you justify why it doesn’t matter, how you don’t have even a moment to sit back and take a break for any amount of time during the day (but for what I don’t know except that you can make time to relax) – your working – you’re busy! – and most of all your lack of interest in the company – me.

I prefer to dine.  I love the experience, the environment, the variety, the silence when I’m alone, the noise when I’m with others.  I like the sharing part.  The dinner table discussions.   I love the feeling of being satisfied without my belly being distended because I didn’t quickly stuff my face and everything was just so good.  Even the silly remarks about how fun the simple things can be and how decadent we are in the moment.

So go on rest of the world without me if you will.  I am content to settle for pure fulfillment.  I prefer to ‘take my time.’  I prefer to dine.


Natural Products Expo West 2012

On my way to Anaheim this morning.  I can’t believe I was up at 5:30am!  Looking forward to this expo. Will be covering as press and blogging for Gia On The Move as well as other media outlets.  Kind of exciting really.  New local, national and international exhibits and presenters of organic foods.  And California seems to have some heavy hitters in the mix.  Psyche! Overall, I have no idea what to expect and I think that’s probably the best part.  Travel & Discovery — I guess this is my Lewis & Clark day.  lol