Made in China

An ABC affiliate recently ran this story about the origins of the vegetables, peanut butter, canned and boxed goods contained in the 365 Organic brand, the generic label offered by the big-organic supermarket Whole Foods. The revelation that many of the chain’s food products are grown or processed in China is unsurprising. And the media’s glee in denouncing the supposedly environmental-ethical aims of Whole Foods is expected. Everyone loves to play the David to the corporate Goliath.

But I want to unpack some more disturbing aspects of this story, because the fact that a lot of our food would come from China, and that a major supermarket – even a ‘green’ one – isn’t the most shocking part. This is not a defense of Whole Foods, which I readily acknowledge has its shortcomings, but rather a reflection on why this report should be seen as more shocking than the revelation it purports to provide.

First, it’s discouraging to see China too-easily made a scapegoat by this report. Do you know how many countries Whole Foods imports food from? I don’t have an exact figure, but last time I wandered through the store I noticed bold yellow signs advertising food from France, Italy, Greece, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Australia, Colombia, Japan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam… Why don’t these countries come under fire? Why isn’t it a problem that some 365 Organic products carry the label “Made in Thailand?” Or that the store imports produce from so many places, period? My hunch is that the “Made in China” label offends the reporters and the customers not so much because they feel deceived, as that they have been taught to disdain the inroads China has made into our increasingly globalized economy. It is not the product itself that offends, so much as the competition for profit.

Tied closely to this is the exclusion from the report of any discussion of the economy surrounding the production of 365 Organic products in China. How many jobs is this providing? What are the conditions for workers there? What are their wages? What would happen to the men and women in those positions if this industry ceased to exist. The lives of consumers are not the only ones impacted by the label “Made in China.”

Second, I am offended by the assumption that consumers have somehow been deceived by a major corporation. I am a literate and capable adult possessing a free will; the same could most likely be said of most of the relatively affluent people who shop in Whole Foods. So I’m a little offended by ABC’s assumption that, had they not shown the label to consumers, we never would have guessed it. I have the distinct feeling they’re insulting my intelligence.

The problem, as I see it, is not that Whole Foods is a deceptive corporation; they truthfully stated that the frozen California Blend, for instance, was a product of China, even if it was in smaller print on the back of the package. The real difficulty lies in our grocery-shopping habits. We’ve been inculcated to trust what is in bold print and not what is in fine print; we do not question the content of our food. But ultimately, we as consumers are responsible for what we put in our bodies and what we encourage others (children, family members, friends, unexpected guests) to put in their bodies. Is Whole Foods guilty of deception? Perhaps, in part. But ultimately we need to assume responsibility for our food habits and cease allowing others to think for us in this area.

Finally, the report refuses to grapple with the implications of our geographical location on the food we eat. They offer farmers’ markets as the fast and easy solution to the problem. While I applaud their promotion of local options, and I try to be a vocal advocate of local foods and local grocery stores myself, it isn’t so simple. I can be as convinced as I like that the relationship building and economic ties created at farmers’ markets is are of great value, but access to these sources is sometimes impossible, or at least improbable. Purchasing fresh produce in the Northeast between October and April is not an option; if we ‘go local’ and seasonal we’re confined to storable root vegetables and to frozen meat products. In addition, the nearest winter farmers’ market is 45 minutes away from me and requires me to choose between supporting local farmers and expending valuable fossil fuel. A dilemma, for sure.

So sometimes I opt for the grocery stores nearest to me–one of which is a large chain that does not seem to care a great deal for the environment or for supporting local producers, the other is Whole Foods, which at least claims to be deeply concerned with the environment and global welfare and does in fact offer a wider variety of local options than the other store. So I choose the latter, the lesser of two evils perhaps, knowing full well that the option is far from perfect.

Ultimately, this report highlights the need for greater thoughtfulness on the part of consumers and the media when it comes to choosing how best to spend our money. This requires serious time and energy and a willingness to prioritize values.

It also requires us to ask the same difficult, conflicting, and even unanswerable, questions over and over again: What is the impact of this product on the environment? On other people? On workers in other countries? On consumers? Where does the money from this store go when I hand it over? What does that label really mean? How does this company treat their employees? What will consuming this food do to my body? How much water did it take to produce this? How much fossil fuel? How much labor? Is it reusable? Is it recyclable? Is it enjoyable? What food cultures is it tapping into? Does this food allow me to express my food culture or to participate in the food cultures of others? Is this food accessible to people of all income levels and transportation options? Is it available to people of all ages? Does this food product represent any kind of discrimination or marginalization? How did this food get to this place from where it began to grow?

On and on and on. Yes, “Made in China” should provoke questions and reform and transformation, but should not shock in the way so recently suggested by ABC’s report. For more provocation, I’d recommend having a look at Whole Foods’ response to the report and the thoughtful reflections of Kimberly Brown on responsible consumption.

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