Is The New Whole Foods Label Better Than 'Organic'?

The company’s new ‘Responsibly Grown’ system rates produce on factors like sustainability and worker treatment.

Toby Melville / Reuters

Earlier this week, like any insufferable Brooklynite, I found myself in need of some baby spinach. A little pressed for time, I chose to forgo a run to my normal grocery store for a quick trip to my neighborhood bodega.

What I walked out with should have earned me a parade with recycled, locally-sourced, biodegradable ticker tape: Five ounces of delicate greens inside a container that had the word “organic” emblazoned on the packaging no fewer than seven times. At a dollar an ounce, it’d hadn’t exactly been a financial win for me, but one can’t scrimp when one is being heroic.

But although it was organic, the produce came in a chunky plastic container, hardly an emblem of sustainability. The leaves had also been shipped from the West Coast, not the most eco-friendly way to get an overload of Vitamin K. That the greens were “triple washed” might raise an eyebrow given the produce’s drought-beset state of origin. Also, I haven’t the slightest clue how the workers who picked the spinach were treated, a considerable bummer since the spinach came from the same northern California town that inspired Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

It seems as though these exact issues might have inspired Whole Foods to establish its “Responsibly Grown” program, which in essence provides another layer of vetting for produce and flowers. The system rates organic and conventional produce alike and takes into account how farmers conserve energy and water along with other environmental and ethical factors like the treatment of workers. In other words, food no longer has to be organic to be “good.”

As NPR pointed out on Friday, organic farmers, who already pay fees and follow strict rules, are not fond of the labeling system. "Organic is responsibly grown, for goodness sake," said one disgruntled fruit grower. "Organic should be the foundation of anything that Whole Foods might do."

Standards set by a national behemoth like Whole Foods could have huge implications in countless markets. But given the shortcomings of the organic designation, will the Whole Foods system further complicate an already misunderstood standard or make it more meaningful?

To sort through this, I reached out to Verena Seufert, a geography professor at McGill University whose work focuses on global agriculture. Her gut reaction was to question the how the program is overseen. According to NPR, “Responsibly Grown” participants pay a fee and then fill out a questionnaire about a number of practices.

Based on those answers, a farm's produce gets a grade: Unrated, Good, Better or Best. Those grades show up right beside each bin of produce on brightly colored stickers with the words: "Responsibly Grown."

“The organic label is a legally defined label that has a long list of requirements that the farmers need to follow,” said Seufert. “Now this replaces that with a questionnaire that is not monitored by a third party, which the organic label is.”

In a New York Times report about the program, Whole Foods associate global produce coordinator Matt Rogers “acknowledged that conventional farmers can get a ‘best’ rating while continuing to use various pesticides, while organic farmers are largely barred by federal regulation from any pesticide use. A conventional potato grower for Whole Foods, for example, might spray the pesticide chlorpropham on potatoes to prevent sprouting, which is not allowed in organic production but permissible in the Responsibly Grown program.”

“I could see the anger of the organic farmers, who pay the fees and follow these rules,” Verena Seufert pointed out, “only to appear beside conventional produce that is well-rated.”

As a proprietary Whole Foods initiative, “Responsibly Grown” can be hard to distinguish from the jargon-filled marketing landscape that already undermines the organic designation, another in a sea of catch phrases such as “all-natural,” “free-range,” and “farm-raised.” But the label could nudge consumers toward more information about what they eat. The designation foregrounds these qualities that, as Seufert explains, “are not necessarily guaranteed by an organic label.”

What precedents could this set? Seufert wonders about designations for carbon footprints and water footprints someday. One upshot of the system, in addition to possibly being good for Whole Foods’s business, is that it could complicate matters for consumers for whom the organic label provided an easy piece of mind.

“There is no simple answer” to the question of what is “good” to eat, Seufert said. “Local is not always good, sometimes it is really good. Organic is not always good, GM [genetically modified] is not always bad. The complex reality of it is very difficult to communicate, even to grasp.”