Your organic food: Made in China Part 1. Why you should give a hill of beans about it

UNFI sells black beans from China to Vermont food co-ops.
UNFI sells black beans from China to Vermont food co-ops.

For years, I’ve kept a store of rice, oats and canned goods, along with pickles, potatoes, shelled beans and frozen vegetables, in the cellar of our old farm house. I buy food in bulk quantities and put up as much as I can from our garden. Going to all this trouble in summer is like holding down an extra part-time job, but I do it because I like to have some idea of where my family’s food comes from.

Recently, though, I began to have doubts about the bulk buying part of my hoarding strategy. Three months ago, I ordered a 5-pound bag of organic black beans from my local food-buying club. When the bag arrived, I was dismayed to find that the source origination cited on the package from United Natural Foods Inc. was not California, or the Midwest.

The country of origin was a place I tend to associate with melamine-laced baby formula: China.

Until that point, I had naively assumed that the bulk food I ordered through the club and purchased from my local co-op was grown domestically.
It turns out my assumption was wrong. A surprising number of organic products available at co-ops and natural food stores in Vermont now come from China.

These are the Chinese organics I’ve been able to identify: fresh garlic, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, black beans, soybeans, adzuki beans and mung beans. In addition, most natural foods stores and co-ops offer frozen foods from Woodstock Farms, a house brand owned by UNFI that distributes imported Chinese broccoli, asparagus, spinach, peas, mushrooms, edamame and peppers. Some frozen foods from Cascadian farms, including the company’s California mix (cauliflower, broccoli and carrots), are also from China.

Since I bought that first bag of Chinese beans in September, I’ve asked a lot of questions and been transferred from one communications officer to the next, put in voicemail hell and given punts like my personal favorite, “Could you please put your questions in an e-mail?” (So that we can ignore them forever.)

I wanted to know why co-ops don’t post the country of origin on bulk foods; what steps USDA officials have taken to regulate organic foods from China; and why these products aren’t produced domestically. Each of these lines of inquiry is taken up in a series of stories this week in Vtdigger.org, “Your organic food: Now made in China.”

For the most part, store managers were forthcoming, as were representatives from Eden Foods, which is privately owned, and Frontier, which is a cooperative owned by food co-ops around the country.

I was stonewalled by the major corporations. I made a dozen calls to UNFI, which is based in Providence, R.I., and I was never able to reach a company official. Nor did I get through to the Organic Trade Association or Hain-Celestial Inc., one of the largest organic food manufacturers in the U.S.

In my long-running communications with the USDA National Organics Program, I was referred to the Web site repeatedly, and though I received verification of certain tips from sources, I did not get an interview with an official from the agency.

So why am I telling you all this? Why should you care about how difficult it has been to report this story? Because, dear reader, when government officials and businesses are this reluctant to provide information about basic quality controls for organic foods that are grown in China, one wonders what they don’t want us to know.

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Anne Galloway

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  • This is insidious and it shows a dissonant flaw in our collective thinking: we want our food “fresh” and “organic” and for many years it has been possible. But now, as it becomes mainstream, watery regulations are adopted (see national organic standards) and “organic” is greenwashed. But what we see is “organic” and not place of origin…even though part of the organic/locavore movement is an emphasis on origin.

    True story: I was working in the kitchen of restaurant that was a member of the Vermont Fresh Network, which requires only that a small amount of food be from local producers. As I prepped different dishes, I used the bulk garlic often. After a few days, I noticed that the garlic, supplied by Sysco, was from China and, like all products from China, it was cheaper than garlic grown in VT or California. The reason for purchasing it? We were a new restaurant and we had to be as frugal as possible…so while we advertised our local roots (some of which were quite valid) we also mixed in these Chinese products. This disconnect runs through all of our stores, and if we took away all the products that were produced this way, what would we have left.

    I have noticed that fish for sale in Shaw’s and Hunger Mountain Coop are now putting origin source on the packaging, and for me, that is huge and makes me choose. That’s the way it should be, because if we haven’t learned that anything from China runs a risk of being not what it is labelled, we haven’t learned anything at all.

  • Page Guertin

    Holy Crap! I now shop mostly at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier – will check their sources. Most of the coops I’ve been to in VT are pretty good about showing country of origin on bulk items, but maybe I need to look further. I believe that it’s crucial for us to be aware not only of the country of true origin of our food, but also that country’s definitions of organic, and their enforcement capabilities. And I’m not even sure about our own enforcement capabilities!

    Thanks for the heads up! Page Guertin

  • Pingback: Why you should give a hill of beans | Vtdigger.org | China Today()

  • Anna Strong

    BRAVO – concise and important! Yeah VTDigger!!!!

  • Carolyn Staub

    Hi, I am taking a nutrition class right now and we were talking about buying local produce, and the teacher a picture of a bag of Woodstock Organic Spinach which said it was sourced in China. I was dismayed because I regularly buy this spinach. Next time I went shopping, I checked out a bag of the spinach and it just said “Distributed by [etc]” but nothing about where it is sourced, which makes me believe that it is sourced still in China and that for some crazy reason the manufacturer doesn’t have to post this on the bag. Freaking nuts. And yeah, slightly worried about what exactly that means standards-wise. So frustrating!

  • I just found out that the Woodstock Organic frozen vegetables I buy are from China. I am very angry about this and I feel I have been violated. This needs to be spread far and wide across the country. I don’t trust anyone anymore.