quality-assurance program, added, “No matter what
countries Costco fresh produce originates in, all are
under the same stringent Costco quality guidelines.”
Food-safety testing is ongoing. Besides Costco’s
in-house testing department, the company employs
numerous independent third-party auditors.
Inspections start at the grower level and end at warehouse checkout. If concerns arise, production ceases.
I asked Heather Shavey, Costco produce general
merchandising manager, about flavor, size, consistency and shape requirements. Each produce item
has a Costco-supplier confidential specification
sheet listing very tight acceptability factors. For
example, Costco has zero tolerance for undersized
Cara Cara oranges, all blueberries must be handpicked and mini watermelons are randomly cut
open at Costco depots to check for hollow centers,
which are not tolerated.
Value is always a priority. A quick comparison
finds a long and varied list of Costco produce with
lower prices than those offered by two national
retailers (see chart). A special nod goes to Costco’s
blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, with savings of more than 50 percent.
Keep to the code
Integral to Costco’s quality formula are the company’s strict Supplier Agreement and Vendor Code of
Conduct, which spell out precisely how Costco expects
the companies they deal with to treat their own
employees. If a company is found to have broken the
law, Costco will either put them on probation or discontinue business with them completely, depending
on the severity of the breach.
Curious to hear a grower’s perspective on these
requirements, I dined with Alejandro Aldunate, the
owner of Aconex and one of Costco’s largest suppliers
of Chilean fresh fruit.
This gentleman has a healthy respect for Costco.
He shared that as a result of their eight-year partnership many positive changes have occurred at
Aconex. Worker benefits, including dentists at the
workplace, special housing programs to assist workers with financing and building their own homes,
and training and education courses for entire families, are now offered—and production is up 30 percent annually.
Excess access for success
Costco works with more than 500 such produce
suppliers in 24 countries. The need for so many partners is straightforward: to provide members with
greater access to high-quality, healthy foods on a daily
basis. Heather explained, “We search the globe to find
the best quality, form long-term commitments, bring
in truly fresh items and always try to buy locally or
within a country. If our members want asparagus in
February, then we get it for them.”
Costco’s produce purchasing plan is deceptively
simple: Follow the sun. This means most U.S. Costco
warehouses offer local and domestic fruits and vegetables (with an ever-increasing emphasis on organic
items) during the Northern Hemisphere’s peak harvest times. Once finished, Costco switches to the cli-matic-opposite Southern Hemisphere.
For example, Costco’s onions come from
Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, New
Mexico, Texas, New York and Georgia during the
U.S. warm season and from Mexico, Peru and
Chile in the winter. Apples, a cold-weather crop,
have the opposite schedule.
Suppliers great and small
I spent a morning walking the convention floor
with Frank Padilla, Costco fresh foods assistant vice
president. Everyone knows Frank, and he never failed
to stop and ask about farmers’ families and crops. I
was surprised Frank spent just as much, if not more,
time talking with small, independent farmers as he
does with large growers. When I asked why, he listed
several reasons: “There is an opportunity for all growers to sell to Costco; we want to make sure that the
folks we deal with are in good shape—we need them
not just this year but every season; I want to ensure
that Costco and our buying team are treating them
fairly; and it’s important to thank all the suppliers for
helping Costco grow each and every year and to
encourage their support for years to come.”
Many suppliers stopped and shared Costco stories: Janice Honigberg, president of Sun Belle Inc.,
credits Costco with helping to transform blackberries
from a fleeting summer treat to a year-round delight.
Brian Bocock of Naturipe Farms reported, “Costco
has helped open up the world market for us. We
started out selling our U.S. fresh blueberries at
Costco’s New Jersey warehouse. Now we distribute
them to most warehouses in the U.S., as well as
Canada, the UK, Taiwan and Japan.”
AT COSTCO, every fruit
or vegetable has a story.
For example, the
warehouse’s very thin
and tender French green
beans are much more
than good-looking, good-for-you veggies. They
represent Costco’s commitment to work directly
with more than 2,000
Guatemalan farming families participating in the
Juan Francisco Project
and the Cuatro Pinos
cooperative for socially
Thanks to this partnership, more than 10,000
Guatemalans are now
receiving access to health
care, education, credit
and technical assistance,
training and decent and
Before leaving, I asked about spot buying.
This is when a retailer purchases repackaged,
untraceable produce. Heather stopped in mid-stride and states, “It’s our goal not to do this. We
have a responsibility to uphold to ourselves, our
families, Costco and our members. Quality and
safety are always on our mind.”
World class through and through, wouldn’t
you say? C
Costco produce buyer,
who has visited the
project many times,
notes, “Today I see a
bag of Costco French
beans as more than just
French beans in a bag. It
makes me think about an
improved quality of life
for many people.”
never tasted so good.—PV
(week before Thanksgiving)
4. 4 oz.
4. 4 oz.