Letters to the editor
This article was originally published in March 2022
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Child labor concerns
I’m a longtime member and wanted to bring a child-labor concern to PCC’s attention. I read this week that some aÇai is harvested by child laborers and may end up being sold under the Sambazon brand. I noticed in the specials this week that PCC sells Sambazon products.
How is PCC thinking about these revelations, and working to vet the supply chain for this product?
— Victoria Khemani
PCC replies: Thank you for reaching out with your concerns about child labor and açaí berry harvesting in Brazil. PCC cares deeply about human rights and takes allegations of child labor seriously. We too had concerns after reading the article and reached out to our primary açaí producer, Sambazon, to learn more about their practices.
Sambazon has been one of the leaders in responsible harvesting of açaí and helped establish fair trade programs for the crop—less than 10% of current açaí is certified fair trade. Sambazon informed us that they strongly condemn the practice of child labor and that they have actively been working to eradicate child labor for two decades by establishing and funding programs aimed at increasing education and income equality. (Understanding Children’s Work (UCW), a joint effort between the World Bank and UNICEF, cites education and income as the key principles that should be supported to eradicate child labor.) You can read more about it on their website here.
Sambazon notes that the article highlights the importance of improving supply chain transparency, collaborating with local communities, and establishing educational programs to combat labor exploitation, including child labor—all of which are the foundational goals of fair-trade programs like those that Sambazon has championed. They believe that continued support for these programs is essential to achieving these goals.
PCC agrees that third-party certification systems, even when imperfect, are an important tool against threats like child labor and that the focus should be on strengthening and improving these certifications. We will continue to monitor and work with Sambazon to ensure that this is not an issue within its supply chain. We appreciate your feedback and engagement, as it helps us understand what our shoppers care about and where we can improve.
Dear PCC members: For anyone interested in the people and the land who bring us our food, I’d like to recommend a good book by James Rebanks called “Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey” (2020). The author, a farmer in the English Lake District, gives a captivating account of farm life, covering four generations of his family who shape, sacrifice and eventually restore their farm to accommodate all the wild things that also can thrive there. I also recommend his earlier book, “The Shepherd’s Life.”
— Christine Sannella
PCC replies: Thank you for the tip! We’re always looking for interesting books about food and agriculture.
Styrofoam and the supply chain
A few weeks ago I purchased two packages of sliced cremini mushrooms at my West Seatttle PCC. After using them I realized the package had a “6” within its triangle of arrows and the letters PS outside of the triangle. The package felt like Styrofoam, but sometimes compostable packaging feels similar so I didn’t think about it until after use. No one that I subsequently queried at the store, including a manager, could tell me if the material could be recycled, but they did point me to web-based resources for answers, including the PCC site. The site says that #6 Polystyrene plastic is made from petroleum, and that conventional styrene (aka Styrofoam) is banned in Seattle. The Foundation for Achievements in Science and Education fact sheet says long-term exposure to small quantities of styrene can cause neurotoxic (fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping), hematological (low platelet and hemoglobin values), cytogenetic (chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities) and carcinogenic effects.
I understand that there are supply chain issues that might force unsatisfactory choices in order to maintain availability of products. I have two questions and a suggestion….or request:
- Is the package Styrofoam and therefore “banned in Seattle”?
- If it is not Styrofoam how should it be disposed?
Is it possible to note to shoppers when a situation forces the temporary or highly infrequent stocking of a product or packaging that is an exception to PCC’s guidelines and, in the case of packaging, to provide disposal instructions? Perhaps you could add a shelf tag: “Do not compost or recycle this packaging.” (Ridwell does take Styrofoam periodically.)
I hope that PCC would not knowingly accept banned packaging and then fail to advise shoppers on its proper disposal.
Thanks for your attention and thanks for your efforts,
— Sylvan Lowens
PCC replies: Thank you for taking the time to send in this thoughtful question about mushroom packaging.
To answer your first question, it is correct that the #6 mushroom packaging is Styrofoam and would be best disposed of as trash (unless you have access to a private service, such as Ridwell, that provides Styrofoam recycling). Because the mushroom packaging is provided by our vendor, and the current Seattle Styrofoam ban only applies to service ware and products packaged by the retailer, it is not in violation of the Seattle ban.
PCC, however, strongly encourages our vendors to avoid polystyrene, and continues to work with vendors, such as the company that provides these mushrooms, to switch their products to more sustainable packaging alternatives, such as molded fiber. That said, our influence only goes so far and changing the food industry’s deeply ingrained dependency on plastic packaging is a complex undertaking, one that is continually evolving.
This is one of the reasons why we also invest in advocacy beyond our store shelves and vendors and were thrilled when a statewide initiative to ban certain plastic and Styrofoam products (that PCC endorsed) was passed into law in May 2021. The law still provides exemptions for certain pre-packaged food cartons, but the continued pressure these broader bans place on the marketplace to develop better alternatives is an important step toward reducing our society’s dependence on plastics.
Even with these significant wins and steps forward on eliminating plastics and Styrofoam, COVID-19 has added another challenge in the form of significant supply chain shortages. These shortages exist for all kinds of packaging, but particularly eco-friendly alternatives that had only just started to hit their market strides. We have seen numerous vendors, including ourselves, forced into using packaging products they would normally avoid or prohibit because of these supply chain shortages. Whenever these shortages create a significant detour from previous packaging, we will be sure to inform our customers of these changes and appreciate your patience as we navigate these additional challenges.
Please be assured PCC continues to be committed on all fronts to eliminate materials like Styrofoam mushroom packaging from our shelves, identify more sustainable solutions, and push the supply chain to do the same.
I just now read a very long and detailed article on organics fraud by Ian Parker in the New Yorker. It is not about a specific farmer but rather an unscrupulous grain broker in Missouri. He swept quite a few people into his schemes to sell non-organic grains as organic and was finally brought to trial in 2018. I can’t imagine there are of lot of people like this operating in the organic food industry, but it’s alarming to learn how many people, including farmers, can get involved with people like this either wittingly or unwittingly. My impression is that PCC vets their sources for organic food or any other product they sell very carefully. Could you include in the PCC newsletter sometime what the process is that you go through to assure that farmers and producers of non-food products are actually organic? I also wonder if the certification process is as lacking in empirical evidence as this article says it is.
— Carol McKean
PCC replies: Thank you for reaching out with your questions and concerns regarding organic certification and issues of fraud highlighted in the New Yorker article, “The Great Organic Food Fraud.” We share your concerns about fraud and recognize the organic certification process is not perfect, and, as with any system or program, there are bad actors. But we are still confident in the organic program as a whole. There are many dedicated certifying agencies and inspectors, and honest producers who farm organically because they are committed to growing food that increases biodiversity, improves soil health, and is free of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Furthermore, the USDA National Organic Program continues to evolve and implement new rules, regulations and standards to improve the integrity of the seal and mitigate potential bad actors trying to take advantage of the program. In 2020 USDA proposed the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule that would amend several sections of the organic program regulations specifically to address regulatory loopholes and prevent fraud. (You can read PCC’s comments submitted as a part of the public review process here.)
While we do screen products and vendors to ensure they meet our standards, we don’t have a process to specifically verify every product’s organic certification. Our strategy is to advocate for strong organic regulations, engage actively in the organic community, and establish as many long-lasting and direct partnerships with independent companies or grower cooperatives to ensure authenticity and transparency in our supply chain.
Regarding your question about non-food items, USDA organic regulations only pertain to agricultural products or crops. Non-food products that are certified organic obtain that certification because they are made from or contain ingredients falling into those categories—agricultural products or crops. It also means that the processing and handling of that product was done in accordance with organic regulations.
Thank you again for reaching out with your concerns as it helps us understand what our shoppers care about and where we can do better.