My husband has been on a health kick lately, so embracing the idea that vegetables would finally be welcomed into our house with open arms, I decided I’d treat myself to a shopping spree at Whole Foods and bring home the best of the best.
Cruising through the produce department I felt so socially responsible, picking out organic items (I can’t always afford) while assuming they were locally grown. And I’m sure lots of them were. But what I didn’t realize was that Whole Foods is among the ever growing list of retailers who occasionally import products from China.
On one hand, I can respect there may very well be responsible, organic growers in China. Whole Foods defends itself by stating, “Our strategy is not to run away from our Chinese suppliers, but to take a stand and get closer to our suppliers.” According to them, even though the products are coming from halfway around the globe, the store can sell them even more cheaply than locally grown goods found down the street.
On the other hand, I don’t know why a company like Whole Foods needs to place itself at competition with other stores selling “affordable” goods, especially when they sure don’t sell anything else cheap. The produce section of their website goes on and on about the benefits of the locally grown. That, coupled with the other range of high-priced groceries, implies a contradiction: wouldn’t they feel a demand for affordable Chinese imports?
It could be a consumer-driven decision, with the majority of buyers just not really caring where stuff comes from. Yet according to the 2011 Deloitte food survey, only 18 percent of consumers ever check the country of origin label on their food products. Additionally, 73 percent of those surveyed are more concerned with the safety of their food than they were five years ago.
The top three foreign suppliers of produce are Mexico, Canada and Chile, with China ranking fourth overall. Perhaps people just cannot live without blueberries in the winter. And if that’s the case, I guess an import is an import and China is no worse than Chile. Even with all the worry over food safety and origin, when asked if there are foods from certain countries they try to avoid when shopping for imported goods, a whopping 63 percent of people said no.
Trader Joe’s sees it differently
However, grocer Trader Joe’s reports having the exact opposite customer response. By 2008, the store had phased out single ingredient foods sourced from China altogether, claiming it was solely based on the voice of the consumer. I know hip people shop at Trader Joe’s, but could they be that much more conscious than the Whole Foods customer?
Perhaps they are just more paranoid. “Our customers have voiced their concerns about products from this region and we have listened,” Trader Joe’s stated, back when the changes were first going into effect. “We will continue to source products from other regions until our customers feel as confident as we do about the quality and safety of Chinese products.”
Whole Foods has confidence in their Chinese suppliers, and it sounds like Trader Joe’s did too. The only difference; one store has customers who dislike it, and the other doesn’t. I liked Trader Joe’s before, but I think I like them even more now. Well, except for the annoying way they package produce in bulk plastic containers, but that’s for another post.