Letters to the editor, March 2016

This article was originally published in March 2016

Olive oil fraud?

The CBS “60 Minutes” report on olive oil and mafia control over it is alarming. It was stated that 75-80 percent of the extra-virgin olive oil coming into the United States is not pure olive oil at all.

What is PCC doing about it and what can we as concerned citizens do about it?

— Carol

PCC replies: The problem with olive oil adulteration and fraud has been on our radar for some time. Even before the “60 Minutes” broadcast, PCC’s Quality Standards Committee had prepared a letter to send to vendors, asking them to answer a short checklist of questions to verify authenticity and purity. We’re gathering replies from our vendors and will report back.

As consumers, you can look on the bottle for a harvest date. This is not the “best by” date! Also look for a specific producer and place of production, mention of the cultivar of olives, a D.O.P. (Protected Designation of Origin) seal on European oils, or a California Olive Oil Council seal on oil made in the United States. These can be good indicators but be aware also that some good olive oils may not state any of these claims.

Ag-gag laws

I came across the following news about a so-called “ag-gag” law passed by Wyoming: “‘Ag gag’ law criminalizing documentation of farming abuses passed in Wyoming”. Apparently, there have been a few other states that have passed similar laws in the past: Utah, Idaho and Iowa. What are PCC’s policies and procedures while sourcing agricultural products from these states?

I take pride and comfort in being able to pick up things from PCC shelves with peace of mind (unlike at other stores). I’m concerned about unsound and unhealthy practices on farms from these states and I wonder if their products would make it onto PCC shelves.

Thanks for your response in advance.

— V.S.

PCC replies: Ag-gag laws outlaw undercover videotaping and exposés of living conditions or abuse at livestock operations. Utah, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Kansas and North Carolina all passed such laws, although Idaho’s law was struck down last fall as unconstitutional and Utah’s and North Carolina’s laws are being challenged in court.

PCC doesn’t have a specific standard on sourcing products from specific states with ag-gag laws. But our animal welfare standards are very high and if a producer meets them in a transparent fashion as we require, it won’t be barred just because it’s in a certain state.

Sustainable palm oil?

I asked if PCC-brand soaps contain palm oil. I was told yes, which was a surprise. Hopefully it’s a sustainable source but even the “sustainable” palm really is just a mask. I usually buy the Alaffia soap because Alaffia is environmentally conscientious.

Also, is there palm oil in the pizza dough you make for the PCC pizza? Some companies put palm oil in pizza dough to prevent it from sticking.

I know PCC is all about organic and healthy but you should have a “zero palm oil” policy. Palm oil production basically has destroyed the island of Borneo and it’s only getting worse.

With the huge growing market in China and other Asian countries, it’s a huge problem. One that does not get discussed enough.

— Shelby

PCC replies: First, the good news: we have determined PCC’s bakery uses only certified sustainable palm oil, which is as good as possible today. The Roundtable for Sustainable Oil (RSPO) admittedly is imperfect (see here) but it’s a start. Without RSPO, no sustainable palm oil would exist.

Our PCC pizza dough uses olive oil, not palm oil. However, a “zero palm oil” policy throughout the store is not possible currently due to palm oil or some derivative in hundreds of products.

It’s impossible to track the source of each ingredient or derivative because companies are not required to disclose it. Part of the difficulty is that palm oil is the replacement of choice for partly hydrogenated oils, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is phasing out by 2018.

Regarding PCC soap, it sources oil only from RSPO producers. The company receives regular updates about compliance and acceptable producers. We also carry Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which use only fair-trade, sustainable palm oil from Ghana where no rainforest land was cleared. Spectrum Naturals, Nutiva, Justin’s Nut Butter, and Earth Balance also source palm oil directly from farmers, in South America. Ecover was named a global leader for its commitment to sustainable palm oil (and efforts to minimize greenhouse gas emissions) on the World Wildlife Fund’s 2013 Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard.

Fungicides on oranges?

I recently purchased elsewhere “heritage” oranges from California treated with thiabendazole, imazalil, pyrimthanil and fludioxonil, which, I assume, are insecticides and fungicides. How safe are these agents? Are the oranges at PCC similarly treated?

— Tom Warchol

PCC replies: All of PCC’s oranges — including our “heirloom” oranges — are certified organic. The chemicals you list are fungicides used in non-organic citrus production. They’re prohibited in organics.

Systemic agricultural chemicals, including some of the ones you noted, cannot wash off — even with hot water. It’s one reason why we advocate and sell organic!

Supplement efficacy and safety

I’ve been a member of PCC and a consumer of PCC-brand supplements for many years. Recently there was a documentary on Frontline (PBS) about the purity and quality of dietary supplements.

I was very alarmed that third-party tests showed various brands and types of supplements do not contain what they were supposed to contain. Only 20 percent of the supplements tested had anything close to what they had listed on the label!

Has PCC done third-party testing to confirm that your supplements are what they say they are? If so, do these tests happen on a regular basis?

It would appear from this documentary that assurances from manufacturers are not enough.

— Tom

PCC nutrition educator Marilyn Walls replies: We are disappointed by the quality of reporting from Frontline. It did not explain the testing method cited is not reliable for the claims made. If there is no protein in an ingredient, it will not show up as present with a DNA test.

PCC does not do any third-party testing and we don’t know of any retailer that does. Each batch would have to be tested and, with nearly 3,000 supplements in our stores, the cost would be prohibitive.

Contrary to what Frontline reported, supplements are regulated by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. It requires testing for purity and potency and also regulates the claims manufacturers can put on their labels. These standards, known as Good Manufacturing Practices, start with the raw materials and follow a detailed series of batch-by-batch tests with recordkeeping of the entire process. DSHEA gives the FDA power to prosecute companies that do not meet the law.

Our PCC-brand vitamins are made in a U.S. pharmaceutical facility, which raises the bar on quality standards. Our PCC brand is made by Vitamer Labs. (Learn about Vitamer’s third-party testing.)

PCC gives preference to products with other certifications, such as USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified, adding another layer of traceability and audits. Our fish oil suppliers perform impressive tests, too. Often you can get the batch number of the bottle and go online or call the company for the actual test results.

Driscoll’s boycott

I am a student at the University of Washington and my parents always have been loyal members to your co-op. I was extremely dismayed to find that despite your professed commitment to ethical sourcing, you still profit from the exploitation of farmworkers in the Skagit Valley. How disappointing. And so, I attended the demonstration today outside the board meeting. I hope you take the time to reconsider sourcing from a company that denies its workers’ rights.

Please drop Sakuma and Driscoll’s products immediately.

I am saddened to learn you are still carrying Driscoll’s products, despite pressure from farmworkers to stop this practice. This company violates the basic human rights of farmworkers to be paid a decent wage and get a union contract so they can be treated fairly. When you are being pressured by more than 500 farmworkers, all of them poor, most of them immigrants with little recourse, doesn’t that make you question if what you are doing is wrong?

Until you can resolve this questionable practice, I will be taking my dollars elsewhere. I also will be informing all of my community of this unfortunate decision you are making.

Please do the right thing. Drop Sakuma and Driscoll’s until they can get a fair union contract.

— Mei Brunson

PCC replies: We’re encouraging consumers to be informed and make their own decision about this ongoing controversy. See “Berry choices: You decide!”.

Sustainable clothing

I read recently in Sound Consumer about sustainable clothing options (“Sustainable clothing: the responsible choice,” December). Around the same time, my alumni magazine highlighted two companies following that path. I thought PCC would like to be aware. The first makes high quality organic cotton fair labor dress shirts: tuckerman.co. The second makes dress socks in the same vein: aceandeverett.com.

Articles about the companies can be found at here and here.

— Anonymous

Deli ingredients

Do you currently or have you considered labeling low/high sodium foods that you prepare in your deli? For those of us who choose PCC as a health-conscious lunch option, it would be nice to have information about sodium levels in the foods you prepare, or you simply could lower the amount of sodium and let the consumer choose what level and type they prefer, through making the additions themselves, through salt, soy sauce, Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, etc.

Most of your prepared foods I find too salty and I realize that people’s preferences and tolerances vary for sodium. As someone who has a low taste tolerance for salt as well as high blood pressure, however, I look to places such as PCC to provide healthy low-sodium alternatives to eating out, or at least more information to enable the consumer to make better informed decisions.

PCC replies: We recommend browsing deli dishes online in our deli nutrition database, which lists the ingredients and nutrition information for most of our deli (and bakery) items at pccmarkets.com/nutritionfacts.

You can search for “low sodium” or other criteria to find deli items that meet your specific dietary needs. PCC has close to 70 items that contain less than 140 mg of sodium per serving, meeting the FDA’s definition for “low sodium.”

If you’re shopping at the store and see a new dish, just ask at the deli counter to print out the nutrition facts.

Also in this issue

Covilli produce now Fair Trade Certified

Covilli brand, known for high-quality organic produce at PCC, has certified its farm Fair Trade USA.

Transforming food system values

Big, processed food companies are losing market share as shoppers are rejecting artificial colors and flavors, pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically engineered ingredients. Here's a look at some recent notable shifts in the market.

A voice for the living soil

PCC Farmland Trust farmer discusses how soil acidification is the most far-reaching threat to conventional food production, and how organic farmers improve soil.