Whole Foods is rolling out a whole new ratings system for produce. Here's what it examines.
Credit: Whole Foods

If you're a Whole Foods fan, then you're probably familiar with the store's food labels that rank meat by how the animals were raised and seafood by sustainability standards. Well, now the natural and organic supermarket chain has unveiled a whole new ratings system—this time for produce and flowers.

The store's Responsibly Grown produce ratings system, which went into effect Wednesday at Whole Foods' nearly 400 stores, aims to help shoppers learn the growing practices behind the fruits and veggies they eat.

The company says it introduced the system to address health and environmental challenges facing the agriculture industry, like the fact that an estimated 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used worldwide each year and that farming uses 70% of the world’s accessible fresh water.

Produce from suppliers will be ranked on three levels: good, better, or best. To earn a "good" rating, produce growers must take 16 steps to protect air, soil, water, and human health. Whole Foods hasn't outlined exactly what those are, but we do know they won't allow the use of germ-killing irradiation or biosolids (that is, fertilizer made from treated municipal waste) and farms have to disclose genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Note that produce rated good, better, or best isn't necessarily organic—organic produce will continue to be labeled as such.

In addition, produce that's been treated with any of the prohibited pesticides on Whole Foods' list can't qualify. Even farms outside the United States aren't allowed to supply produce grown with pesticides that aren't allowed in this country.

To meet the better or best level, the supplier would have to go beyond the basic standards set by Whole Foods. That means things like committing to water and energy conservation, advancing soil health, and protecting rivers, lakes, and oceans. Farm workers should be given protective equipment, too. There are several different requirements per level, so check out Whole Foods' site for the full list.

Sure, the produce ranking system may come off as a little elitist, but it doesn't hurt to reward growers for good practices. At the end of the day, you can't deny that the environment will be better off.