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I showed up at Whole Foods with my giant stack of heavy glass containers, as usual, and the deli guy said they couldn't use them because they couldn't guarantee they were clean. He offered to call over a manager, who told me the same thing. I told them I was trying to avoid plastic, and a third employee jumped in and offered paper containers. (I took a picture, but can't figure out how to post it.) They're recycled paper, endorsed by the Green Restaurant Association, which I've never heard of, so I'll just assume it exists to make people feel better about their unnecessary disposable packaging.
The silliest part? The lady at the fish counter let me use my glass container. The cashier said he'd bring it to management's attention, but I'm not sure I want him to. The fish lady might turn me down next time.
Are they? I couldn't tell.
They've filled my containers several times before. At the deli, meat, and fish counters. I live in Virginia, and shop at the Short Pump location in Richmond. It's not at all convenient to my house, so it's extra disappointing when I get all the way there and they act stupid.
I've had the same experience in Reno. Only there it was extra silly. They wouldn't let me re-use a tea tin for……drum roll please……loose leaf tea. Said it was unhygienic and against the health and safety codes. Also – mason jar for bulk granola was a no-go. Please use plastic bag instead. Honestly, don't they know I'm going to transfer from the plastic bag to my tea tin and mason jar when I get home anyway? It's far more convenient if nothing else.
Good grief! I'm pretty sure the Richmond store is still okay with re-using containers for self-serve items. But I didn't try on my most recent visit, so who knows? They do have a weight limit for what the cashier can subtract, so if your glass containers weigh more than a pound, you're better off leaving them at home, anyway.
I ran into this same problem in Minneapolis with bulk tea at Whole Foods. When I went to have my container weighed, the woman there said they just found out the the FDA prohibits the use of outside containers for bulk items. They stressed that it was not Whole Foods idea, but they did have to inform me of the rule. I'm usually quite a rule-follower, but I did use some of my own containers as I had them with me and was on my bike so my groceries would not fit in my bike bag otherwise (I figured maybe being a cyclist in Minnesota in January would give me a special pass [Image Can Not Be Found]). The cashier did not say anything or act like there was a problem. The bakery folks let me use my own bag too. This policy is a bummer, considering it would be unlikely that a washed container filled with care would pose any contamination issue. I think the co-ops must be under different rules, as the consumer is a member? They seem to be very encouraging of reusing containers. Hope I'm not getting anyone “in trouble.” I've now just been going to the co-op mostly.
I sent an email to Brian Nunnery, one of the founders of the new packaging-free grocery store opening up in Austin, TX this year, with this question about FDA regulation, and he said he had never heard of that. He said he suspects these decisions are made at the individual store level. So getting people to put pressure on store managers is the only way to change the rules.
This is interesting because after reading Beth's post I did a little research I could not find any information on a FDA regulation or even a guideline prohibiting outside containers. I also could not find anything in my state, but Whole Foods actually had a little sign taped to the customer service counter stating that the FDA did not allow outside containers. Maybe it's someplace obscure, but with the growth of bulk foods, I would think this would have eup before now. Perhaps I can politely inquire about this at WF. Thanks for the research Beth.
I’ve been told by a Whole Foods in Massachusetts and several other bulk food stores in MA & NH that health codes prohibit use of my containers in the store (and one who wasn’t sure & is willing to let me use them until they’re told otherwise, but I don’t want to get good folks into trouble). If I thought there was more interest around here, it might behoove a store to have reuseable/exchangeable containers (maybe Mason jars) that they clean, like the dairy can reuse glass milk bottles. There is a lot of fear about allergens, as well as germs.
Hi Heather. Can you ask the managers to site the exact health code that prohibits it? Or can you call the health department and find out if this is actually true? And are you talking about the food from the bulk bins? Or from the deli/prepared foods counter? All over the store? That would be good to know.
I’ve only asked about bulk bins so far. One store cited municipal codes, but every place in the state (NH) has told me the same thing. I’m not sure whether city boards of health would be in charge there.
Add to this that I live in MA, so NH poloticians don’t really care what I think. There are no real stores in the town where I live (a couple convenience stores, one microscopic supermarket, and the farm stands where we’re OK), so municipal politicians don’t really care what I think. I will contact whatever regulating body the stores refer me to for clarification, though.
Regarding the paper containers – if they are the ones used for the salad bar I do not think they are plastic lined (maybe you mean the paper take out boxes some stores use?). If you let wet food sit in them long enough you can tell. Plus, they do not have that shine.
This definitely deserves more research because why would my TX WFs have no problem with containers but VA’s does?
Beth, thanks for educating us all on plastic. I’ve been trying to cut back on my use of plastic ever since I started seeing it in Lake Michigan, and eventually saw the same pictures you did of the gooney birds. I’ve been reducing in my own small way, but have been despairing on how to shop for groceries.
Today, after reading your chapter on grocery shopping, I went on an expedition to whole foods, to understand better what was available in the bulk foods department. Imagine my disappointment when I saw the sign saying we had to use their containers due to “FDA regulations”.
I did speak with their customer service representative, but he wasn’t very helpful. I want to figure out what we need to do in order to get this policy reversed. I don’t really even know where to begin! From the messages above, it seems more of a local issue than a federal one, despite the signage.
I was shopping at the Schaumburg, IL location.
Update: I posted the following to Whole Foods web site comment form:
I want the Whole Foods policy that prohibits using a customer container for bulk foods to be reversed, and for Whole Foods to not only support this practice, but to encourage it.
This is in line with your company’s “Green Mission.” The first “R” of the three R’s is “reduce.” The use of customer containers for bulk foods is therefore in accord with your core values. Disposable one-use paper and plastic products are typically down-cycled, not recycled and eventually end up in the landfill anyway. Furthermore, there are health concerns with plastic, which most packaging (even paper packaging) contains.
The sign in your store cites an unspecified FDA regulation. I have not thoroughly researched this, but I did see some internet posts questioning this. Can you please cite the exact regulation so that we can work to get it modified? Also, if there are any lower government concerns about this practice for the Schaumburg, IL location, please cite those as well so that we can lobby to get this changed.
One alternative you may wish to consider is implementing something like milk companies do (including Oberweis Dairy, which you sell in your Schaumburg store). You could provide standard containers made of plastic-free glass or stainless steel to use for bulk foods and charge a deposit for them. (Oberweiss bottles are $1.50.) You would then accept these containers from customers and refund the deposit. You would sterilize these containers on-site and make them available to the next customer.
Sadly, I did find some information about the FDA. It seems they publish every four years a model health code, which most communities adopt blindly and it is in there. Local communities do seem to have the ability to modify it though. See:
For more information on the topic. Seemed a well researched article.
I’ll certainly post any reply I get.
Thanks for finding this article. I will read the whole thing when I have more time this weekend. But for right now, I just want to comment about this part:
““Chapter 4-603.17: Returnables, Cleaning for Refilling. . . . returned empty containers intended for cleaning and refilling with FOOD shall be cleaned and refilled in a regulated FOOD PROCESSING PLANT.” It prohibits grocery stores, coops, and other food institutions from doing what the Good Food Store does: sterilize reusable containers for their customers to, um, actually reuse.”
I don’t think this is the same thing as customers bringing their own containers to fill themselves with food for themselves. It says “returned empty containers intended for cleaning and refilling with FOOD…” That sounds like a returnable milk bottle that is sent back to the dairy, for example. But not your own container meant to be reused by yourself. You know?
I need to look at the actual code chapter and see what else it says, but I don’t have time right at this moment.
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