Health & wellness

Can you trust organic produce from China?

Deborah Kotz
Organic edamame sold by Whole Foods comes from China

A few days ago, my mother forwarded me a link to a local TV news report accusing Whole Foods of selling organic frozen vegetables, under its 365 brand, that were picked and packaged in China -- including one called California Blend. While some Chinese farmers, no doubt, stick to guidelines for growing organic by curtailing their use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, many may not, and it’s tough for a consumer to discern from the packaging, according to Charles Benbrook, chief scientist of the non-profit Organic Center.

I stopped by Whole Foods today and found frozen organic edamame that came from China -- see the photo of the product above -- but was unable to find other frozen vegetables from China.

Whole Foods spokesperson Heather McCready told me via e-mail that the company was well aware of the “misleading and inaccurate” news report that first ran in May 2008.

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“As of the summer of 2010, we are no longer sourcing any of our Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value frozen vegetables from China EXCEPT for frozen edamame (shelled and unshelled, organic and conventional),” McCready wrote. “We want to be clear that we didn’t stop sourcing from China because of quality or food safety concerns.”

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Whole Foods said it was a business decision made after finding other suppliers in the United States and elsewhere that could supply the same or better quality at cheaper prices.

I did notice that several packages of the store’s organic frozen vegetables were packaged in Mexico and wondered how much trust consumers can put into organic seals from other countries. In the United States, the organic seal falls under the regulation of the US Department of Agriculture with strict standards on the use of artificial chemicals, irradiation, and genetic engineering. That seal can also be used for foods packaged in other countries that have US accredited inspectors.

But that may not be the case with other seals like the Quality Assurance International one printed on the Whole Foods edamame package. For this reason, the Environmental Working Group recommends buying only products with the USDA’s organic seal.

On its website, Whole Foods insists that “organic products from China can absolutely be certified organic to the exact same standard as domestic products” and “organic integrity is ensured every step of the way” with certifying agents supervised by the USDA.

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Benbrook, though, said consumers can’t rely on that. “On paper it’s supposed to be the same, but the reality is that there are substantial issues with organic foods coming out of China.”

Those willing to spend the extra money to buy organic produce would be smart to avoid anything from China, he added. That said, Benbrook said frozen organic produce packaged in Mexico seems to be held to the same standards as US produce. “Often the American companies simply move down to Mexico for the winter growing season so there’s no reason to think they’re not employing the same organic growing standards.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.