Whole Foods' New Produce Ratings Probably Won't Change a Thing

Whole Foods Market today rolled out a rating system to tell shoppers the environmental impact of the produce and flowers it sells. The labels will give products ratings of Good, Better, and Best, based on such factors as pesticide use, water conservation, waste recycling, energy use, and how farmworkers are treated.

In doing so, the upscale grocer is pushing along a labeling trend that started with organic and spread. Several states are seeing battles over whether to label foods with genetically modified ingredients—organic products, by definition, can’t contain GMOs, and Whole Foods has committed to labeling all foods in its U.S. and Canadian stores containing GMOs by 2018. In Europe, the labeling battles have spread to Middle East issues—last year the EU began working on guidelines to label food products from the Israeli settlements differently from those from Israel itself, which would allow consumers to choose between them.

Courtesy Whole Foods

The argument for labeling is always one of transparency: Whatever you think of GMOs or Israel, shouldn’t everyone have a right to know where his or her food came from and how it was grown? Yes, according to a New York Times poll conducted last year, in which 93 percent supported GMO labeling. Labeling tends to be pushed by people with strong views on the products in question, but the argument has broad appeal.

Whole Foods’ new labeling system enhances the grocer’s reputation as a signage enthusiast and as an environmental steward. But if the implied idea is that, once informed, customers will endorse the more environmentally friendly produce with their wallets, thereby improving the health of the planet—well, that’s far from certain. Related research suggests that more information doesn’t necessarily have the expected effect on consumer behavior: The calorie counts that fast-food restaurants now post on their menus have little effect on what people order.

And that’s something that has a direct impact on the consumer. The environment, even for a bag-reusing Whole Foods shopper, is a more nebulous concept. If a 2011 Thomson Reuters poll is to be believed, most people pay the premium that comes with buying organic not because they approve of the farming practices but because they believe it’s better for their own health. The health of the planet, in other words, is a secondary consideration.

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