Addressing Rumors and Myths Which 
Have Been Circulating About Sprays and 
Coatings on Organic Produce

 
Introduction and Background
I strongly dislike rumors and half-facts; I also strongly dislike panic and hysteria.  This may trace back to my days as a crisis therapist, but I strongly feel that there usually is not so much fire as the smoke might indicate!  In late 2000 and early 2001, rumors started circulating in the raw foods world, especially among Los Angeles-area raw foodists, and especially among eaters of RVAF diets (raw foods diets which include raw animal foods) that the organic produce from Whole Foods/Fresh Fields was coated by petro-chemical waxes and oils, and that some of the petrochemical coatings were applied by Whole Foods personnel in the produce aisle.  What was rather amusing about these rumors was that they usually specified that only organic produce from Whole Foods was suspect, and that organic produce from any other sources (smaller natural foods stores, commercial supermarket chains, etc.) was implicitly free of such putative contaminants, and therefore safe to eat.  I personally encountered these rumors repeatedly in conversations with other RVAF eaters, and, to my dismay, they surfaced repeatedly as well in the two e-mail lists devoted to RVAF diets.  Why was I dismayed?  The rumors flew in the face of everything I have ever learned about handling of organic produce at the production, distribution and sales stages, and seemed to me to be nothing short of blind and mindless hysteria.  I have little patience for such things, and also happened to be the list owner for one of those raw foods lists.  Therefore, in early 2001, I got on the phone over the course of a week and did some research, and compared my findings with what I had learned on this topic over the past few years.  

My Credentials
What are my credentials?  I have a strong formal educational background at both the undergraduate and graduate level in both engineering and the sciences, and especially in the research end of the sciences.  I have a broad, 60-credit Master's degree in research methods in physical and behavioral wellness, and have operated a small part-time research lab in nutritional antioxidants for several years.  I have eaten an all-raw RVAF diet since April 2000, and thus had a vested interest in debugging the rumors about quality of organic produce, since I eat quite a bit of this stuff myself.

More Background
As you know, there have been rumors going about the RVAF world and the raw foods lists that have been somewhat vague, but centered about the allegation that Whole Foods (WF) (and, by association, Fresh Fields, or FF) somehow sprays "all" their produce with a petroleum oil and water mixture.  The inference (and oftentimes explicit warning) has been that even their organic produce is treated this way, and that it likely affects all kinds of produce, such as fruits, veggies, greens, etcetera.  An additional and concomitant inference, which has been made by at least two folks via the LIVE list, has been that Whole Fields does this nefarious thing to organic produce, but that other vendors of organic produce (local health food stores, local health food co-ops, and supermarket chains such as Safeway or Schnucks) do not do so, and thus one can safely purchase their organic produce at these alternate vendors!  Specifically, it has also been alleged that some members of the Live-foods list and other raw foodists have been told by employees of WF/FF that WF/FF "sprays organic produce with mineral oil and petroleum oils and waxes to preserve them."

What Kind of Research Did I Do?
I have regularly kept abreast of this topic of coatings on organic produce over the past 8 years, discussing it with produce managers and clerks in a variety of settings, and even with store and chain buyers, and I was surprised by the recent spate of rumors, since they seemed to contradict what I have learned over the years.  Thus, I hit the phone in early 2001, and spoke over a week's time with regional produce buyers, regional produce merchandisers, store produce managers, store produce department team leaders, store produce department clerks and store managers at both Whole Foods, Fresh Fields and some national supermarket chains, as well as such personnel at smaller natural foods stores.

Overview of Whole Foods and Fresh Fields Stores, as of Early 2001
First, Whole Foods (WF) regional management has informed me that they operate health food supermarkets across the country, usually under the name Whole Foods.  Since about 4 years ago, they have wholly owned Fresh Fields (FF) (primarily an East Coast chain) as well, and indeed, operate FF, and supply FF from the same distribution chain which supplies WF stores. Indeed, the product labels and wrappers in most FF stores now read "Whole Foods".  Out here on the East Coast, they have a large regional HQ in Northern NJ for the stores in the Northeast states, and a large regional HQ in Rockville, MD for the stores (WF and FF) in the mid-Atlantic (I spoke to managers and buyers in the produce areas of both regional offices as well.)  As you are likely aware, WF/FF sells both organic and non-organic produce in its produce departments, and each type is labeled as such.  All answers I learned for WF apply to FF as well.

Interestingly, everything which I was told today by managers, team leaders, produce merchandisers and produce buyers not only was rather straightforward and uniform (and all stories tallied!), but also jibed with what my prior research has shown and with what I have learned about organic produce as sold by other vendors (local health food stores, local health food co-ops, and supermarket chains such as Safeway or Schnucks) as well.  All stories told to me by everyone involved cross-checked well, jibed with each other, made sense, and were commonsensical.

Sprays and Coatings on Produce at Whole Foods/Fresh Fields
Each WF and FF store has one or more LARGE signs in the produce department stating that some produce, especially non-organic produce, may have been treated with coatings (sometimes called waxes) by the producer (grower, farmer or farmer's cooperative) or distributor to retain moisture in the item, and that some of these coatings may be petroleum-based.  This is simply a reportage of the condition of foods as they arrive at WF/FF warehouses from distributors of both non-organic and organic produce, and thus, the sign in the WF/FF produce aisles reflects nothing more than a reminder of common and extant practices in the worlds of commercial distribution of non-organic and organic produce, especially for shipping over long distances, such as for non-local produce or out-of-season produce.

WF does not own any facilities for treating, spraying or waxing any produce anywhere.  They do not coat any produce, whether non-organic or organic, whether in their warehouses or in the aisles.  WF simply purchases its produce, both organic and non-organic, from produce distributors or large growers.  State and federal laws and local health department regulations allow many kinds of produce to be treated by the grower, shipper, or distributor to seal in moisture and preserve freshness.  These products are usually treated with waxes, some of which are petroleum-based.  WF does not ever coat or wax any produce itself, nor ask any vendor to do so.  Their buyers estimate that most non-organic hand fruits and perishable vegetables (cukes [aka cucumbers], zucchini, etc.) are waxed by the time they purchase them from growers and distributors.  This is also true, but to a somewhat lesser extent, for organic produce purchased thru organic supply channels.   If it has been treated, the organic produce has been treated by growers, shippers or distributors as part of their standard procedures, and not by WF, and thus, is the same organic produce shipped to all organic vendors who buy from organic produce distributors (in contrast, for example, to a farm stand selling organic produce fresh from a local farm.)  All organic produce which has been waxed has been coated or waxed only with a product which meets organic standards and applicable laws for handling of organic foods.  When WF/FF produce departments spray fresh produce in the aisles to preserve it from premature wilting and shrinkage, it is sprayed only with pure water and with nothing else.

Greens are never treated, whether non-organic (there may be a few exceptions here) or organic, while more perishable items such as fruits, eggplants, peppers, cukes, etc. often are.  For the most part, WF tries to discourage distributors from treating and coating organic produce, even though the coatings used DO meet all applicable organic regulations and requirements. But, WF recognizes that distributors may feel that they need to ship some
produce items cross-country, and thus feel that they must coat it with a wax-like substance to retain moisture to survive the long trip.

While petroleum-based (aka mineral oil) waxes are sometimes used on non-organic produce by the growers, distributors and shippers, organic growers, distributors and shippers (who supply all health food stores and health food vendors, and not just WF/FF) always are bound by law and contractual requirements to treat organic produce only with waxes and sealants which have been approved by the local organic standards certifying organization, or by the organic certifying organization which governs the grower of origin.  These organic standards do vary from region to region and state to state, but they either never or almost never allow petroleum-based waxes or oils on organic produce.  Rather, the sealing agents used for
organic produce are beeswax-based waxes or plant-based waxes. 

An important point to note in the above discourse is that these organic growers, shippers, and distributors supply this pre-treated produce to virtually ALL health food stores, co-ops, and health food supermarkets in the USA, along with the produce departments of supermarket chains which carry organic produce (e.g., Safeway, Schnucks, etc.)  Thus, there is nothing peculiar or unique to WF/FF or the organic produce which they receive. 

Indeed, both today and over the past few years when I have asked the same questions of produce managers, produce buyers and produce merchandisers at local health food stores,  local health food co-ops and also of organic produce distributors, I have always gotten the same answers.  Everyone involved seems to agree that the only way to guarantee that your organic apples, oranges, pears, eggplants and cukes are NOT coated with organically-approved waxes is to do one of the following:
1)  pick them yourself from the field
2)  purchase them from a local organic farm stand fresh and in-season 
3)  purchase them from a small local co-op or health food store which labels certain organic product bins as "not sealed, not waxed, not coated" (such products may be quite a bit more costly than normal organic produce due to drastically increased shipping and handling costs.)

Misting in the Produce Aisle
Since I have an active mind, it occurred to me that some produce departments, when they "mist" their produce to keep it fresh, may actually (accidentally) use not only water, but some kind of nefarious water/wax or water/oil mixture in the misting spray.  Indeed, this allegation had surfaced repeatedly in the above-mentioned rumors which had circulated repeatedly in early 2001.  So, I asked everyone involved specifically about that in the course of my research, both at WF/FF and at health food co-ops, health food stores, and conventional supermarkets (which carry organic produce) as well.  Everyone involved assured me that they use plain tap water for the misting spray; none had ever heard of anything else. 

What Other Chains or Stores Do These Findings Apply To?
I am rather confident in stating, after concluding this research, that my findings iterated above not only apply to WF/FF, but also to all or almost all of the organic products which you purchase in other health food supermarkets, health food co-ops, health food stores, and conventional supermarkets which carry organic produce.  The only exceptions will be some
small local stores or co-ops which only buy locally and in-season produce and thus can safely label all organic bins or at least certain organic bins as "not sealed, not waxed, not coated".

How Accurate and Reliable Are These Findings?
I double checked and triple-checked (and more) my answers with other managers, buyers, produce team leaders and produce clerks within several WF/FF stores and two different WF regional offices, as well as with produce mangers, buyers, mechandisers and clerks at local health food stores, health food coops and also supermarkets which carry some organic produce.  No answers contradicted others; all answers agreed (oh, no, a conspiracy!), and people who were interviewed appeared to be very open and willing to share whatever they knew.  These answers, to me, not only make sense, but were answers given unanimously by all involved.

Conclusion
WF is buying their organic produce through the same supply chains which feed about 90% or more of the organic point-of-sale vendors in the USA.  If any organic produce is waxed for sealing, that has been done in the supply chain by growers, distributors and shippers, and not by WF.  If the produce was organic, then only organic-standard approved waxes will have been used.  WF, therefore, does not carry organic produce which is intrinsically more frequently coated with sealants, or which is treated with petroleum-based sealants, than that sold by other vendors.  Coating of some produce is simply a method used to preserve the life of produce to allow shipping long distances.  I suspect WF/FF got scape-goated here because they DO post large signs in their produce aisles announcing the various coatings, and because they are large and well-known!  Hence, for their admirable level of self-disclosure, they have inadvertently paid a price in some unsubstantiated and inaccurate rumors.

Frankly, if you want cleaner, better organic produce than your local organic market vendors can supply, then grow it yourself, or purchase only organic produce locally and in-season from local organic vendors whom you trust.

I, for one, will continue to purchase a good portion of my organic and non-organic produce at both Whole Foods and Fresh Fields!
 


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