August 11, 2015 – Back in April, we released a "report out" from the event that was co-hosted by the Portland, Maine, Whole Foods Market store and MOFGA. That event represented direct outreach from the Portland store to find more Maine Certified Organic producers interested in selling to Whole Foods. We still believe that the Portland store has made significant efforts and investments in their certified producer vendors in Maine, and represents a potentially successful market opportunity for certified organic farmers and processors here.
However, there has always been substantial concern from MOFGA and certified organic producers nationwide about Whole Foods' new "Responsibly Grown" rating system for their products. Will it confuse consumers? How will it relate to the Certified Organic label? Etc. To learn more about the "Responsibly Grown" rating program, please check out this website.
On June 12th, five of the nation's most well-known certified organic farmers sent CEO of Whole Foods John Mackey a letter protesting Whole Food's new "Responsibly Grown" rating system. In the letter, they say, "we are deeply concerned that Whole Foods' newly launched "Responsibly Grown" rating program is onerous, expensive, and shifts the cost of this marketing initiative to growers, many of whom are family-scale farmers with narrow profit margins. We have limited amounts of management and staff time that are sorely taxed to execute the voluminous application your company has developed." Further down in the letter, they continue, "Furthermore, our greatest concern is the devaluation of the organic label in Whole Foods Market stores. The "Responsibly Grown" program allows conventional farmers utilizing lower-cost management techniques, still incorporating toxic inputs, to unfairly compete with Certified Organic produce in your stores on a level footing with – or even rated better than – organic farmers. Growing ecologically produced food isn't cheap. And to that we must add the considerable cost of organic certification. Whole Foods has done so much to help educate its customers about the advantages of eating an organic diet. This new rating program undermines, to a great degree, those efforts."
Several additional farmers signed on to the letter in the days that followed. You can read the entire letter, here.
John Mackey's initial response (June 16th) largely denied the certified organic farmers' concerns and was posted on the Whole Foods blog. You can read his response, titled "Clarifying the Tenets of Responsibly Grown" here.
On July 14th, almost a full month later, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Whole Foods announced some changes to the "Responsibly Grown" program. You can read about those changes here, also on the Whole Foods blog.