Whole Foods Makes A Good, Better, Best Effort To Rate Produce, Veggies

What could be simpler than “good,” “better” or “best” — the new rating system Whole Foods unveiled yesterday to grade the fruits, vegetables and flowers it peddles based on variables such as a supplying farms’ use of pesticides, soil health, water conservation policies, clean energy use and workers’ welfare.

Well, apparently there’s nothing simple about it.

“We want to support the healthy eating of our shoppers. We feel like we do a good job of providing customers with options,” says Whole Foods dietician Allison Enke, ABC News’ Rheana Murray reports in a piece titled, “How Whole Foods Shames Some of Us Into Eating Healthy.”

“But all those options may be overwhelming for some shoppers” Murray writes, citing a shopper from Asheville, N.C., who tells “Good Morning America”: “I thought I was already doing great buying coconut oil; now I need to get extra virgin coconut oil that came from an island?”



Then there are the farmers such as John Lyman, whose family has grown apples, peaches, pears and berries on a farm in Middlefield, Conn., since 1741. Although he welcomes the program, some aspects may prove nettlesome in the execution, he tells the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom.

“For instance, they want to know about earthworms and how many I have in my soil,” says Lyman. “I thought, ‘How do I count every earthworm?’ It’s going to take a while.”

And consider Tom Beddard, an organic farmer who grows vegetables and melons in Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Despite numerous certifications for sustainable practices and his worker-centric policies, only one of his operations, which are collectively known as Lady Moon Farms, earned the “best” designation, Strom reports.

“We were a little weak on our use of renewable resources in Georgia and Florida,” Beddard says.

Not to mention the impact on both sales and the earth itself. 

“Whole Foods’ new labeling system enhances the grocer’s reputation as a signage enthusiast and as an environmental steward. But if the implied idea is that, once informed, customers will endorse the more environmentally friendly produce with their wallets, thereby improving the health of the planet — well, that’s far from certain,” observesBloomberg Businessweek’s Drake Bennett. 

“Related research suggests that more information doesn’t necessarily have the expected effect on consumer behavior: The calorie counts that fast-food restaurants now post on their menus have little effect on what people order,” Bennett concludes.

Finally, although Kari Hamerschlag of Friends of the Earth “applauded Whole Foods for prohibiting a fairly comprehensive list of pesticides to qualify for its rankings,” according to the AP’s report, she has some reservations. “To achieve the ‘best’ rating … she noted only four of the seven major pesticides shown to be harmful to bee populations were prohibited.”

For its part, “Whole Foods says the program will encourage farmers to recycle plastics, install solar panels, plant wildflowers to restore natural bee habitats, and more efficiently irrigate their fields, for example,” writesTime’s Sam Frizell.

“The effort will give consumers a quality guide similar to what the retailer now offers for seafood and other products,” points out Claudia Grisales of the Austin American-Statesman, who was given an embargoed peek at the program earlier this month. 

“We just believe in greater transparency, we think transparency is a virtue. We think customers have a right to know,” co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey told her. “And unless it’s organic, they don’t really know what’s in the produce. So far it’s been conventional or organic, but there’s a lot more to that story.”

Say what you will about good, better, best, it’ll be easier than the technique employed by one astute shopper I know. She has been relying on the obscure knowledge that the PLU codes on fruits and veggies reveal more than most of us are aware. To wit, you can tell “if the fruit was genetically modified, organically grown or produced with chemical fertilizers, fungicides, or herbicides,” as Dr. Frank Lipman explains on his website.

“If there are five numbers in the PLU code, and the number starts with ‘8’, this tells you that the item is a genetically modified fruit or vegetable,” Lipman writes. If there are only four numbers, on the other hand, it means the produce was grown with the use of pesticides. Organic foods carry five numerals starting with a 9. 

Got it? You sure? 

May you fare better than my friend, who until recently was contentedly buying 8s under the misunderstanding that her family would be solely biting into organically grown apples and the like.

Good, better, best has got to betterer, no? 

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