Thursday, May 31, 2007

No China Diet: What Trader Joe's Says

Since there is no federal law to require that food products are labeled as to their origins, as a consumer you are at the mercy of the manufacturer and how much information they wish to put on the label. In our case, that manufacturer is Trader Joe's. We've shopped at Trader Joe's weekly for years. I estimate that we've spent probably roughly $40,000 there ($100/week x 50 weeks x 8 years), and been perfectly happy to do so.

But Trader Joe's was also where Jim noticed that we were eating "fresh" edamame from China, so we've been much more careful with labels, choosing produce grown in the US over other countries, and choosing organic over conventional. One thing I've noticed is that anything that is processed (e.g., cans of beans, jars of tomato sauce, hummus in a tub) wears "Distributed by Trader Joe's, Monrovia, CA" or occasionally, "Distributed by Trader Joe's, Needham, MA." What does that mean about the origin of the ingredients?

Here's what I first emailed to Trader Joe's using their feedback form:

I've been carefully reading labels on my last few trips to Trader Joe's, and I can easily see where fruits and vegetables come from (US, Mexico, China), but can't tell about the origin of ingredients with processed foods. Do you use ingredients from China in processed foods? (e.g., cereals, pastas, pesto, hummus)

Here's the response I received from Customer Service:

At Trader Joe's, we have been dealing with standards and practices in many different countries for over 49 years, and our buyers are diligent about making sure our suppliers and the products they provide are not below standards set in the United States. Certainly some companies in China, and other parts of the world, are far behind the times when it comes to organics, etc; however, we do not do business with those companies. As always, we allow our customers to vote with their dollars. If nobody wants vegetables from China, those products certainly won't be in our stores for long.

We require FDA regulated GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) program of our vendors. HACCP is a systematic approach to identifying, evaluating and controlling food safety hazards. In addition, our Quality Assurance Team audits our vendors to monitor their facilities and practices.

I wasn't thrilled with that as a response, particularly because what I asked was if there were ingredients in processed foods from China, and what she said was that if there were, they were careful about it. At least I think that's what she said. It reads like a press release, no?

So I emailed her back with the question again. The email bounced. So I used the feedback form again and got this response from someone else in Customer Service:

Thanks for your email. Anytime there is no country of origin statement("product of ...") it means it is a product of the USA. We always label when we import a product.

Hmm...that's not exactly what I asked either. I realize that if all the ingredients in a product were from China, it might be labeled as such. But what if the ingredients are from all over the place? I think it then wears the "distributed by Trader Joe's, Monrovia, CA" or "Distributed by Trader Joe's, Needham, MA" label.

Any other interpretations?