Michael Pollan denounces Whole Foods boycott

Money quote: "Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder. I haven’t examined the political views of all the retailers who feed me, but I can imagine having a lot of eating problems if I make them a litmus test." (New Majority)

18 Responsesto “Michael Pollan denounces Whole Foods boycott”

  1. Steve Sando says:

    I don't agree with a boycott either but Pollan is naive if he thinks Whole Foods shopping is the same thing as shopping at Safeway or even Macys. People are making a statement, basically saying they are willing to pay more for "real" food, when shopping at Whole Foods. If the fish rots from the head, it makes sense that the public encourage the board of directors to oust Mackey.
    Personally I think it's good to constantly remind ourselves that Whole Food is not NPR. It's a profit run corporation. Maybe it's better than others, maybe better than all of them, but they are not a non-profit, despite their aesthetic.

  2. Jacquelyn says:

    That's very well put.  We always get our knickers in a knot when we find out some damning information about the people behind the corporations, but the truth is, there could be  people with beliefs we don't agree with behind ANY business, large or small.  I think in this case it matters more what Whole Foods is doing as a company than what their leaders are doing as individuals.  It's impossible to boycott everything that may be associated with anyone disagreeable.  We lose our ability to judge and discriminate the values of the companies that feed us when they are huge multinational corporations.  Just another one of their many downsides.

  3. Marlane W says:

    Speaking as a former Whole Foods stockholder and ignoring my firm allegiance to healthcare reform, Mackey's actions as CEO of a publicly held company are actionable. His blogging under an assumed name was fraudulent; his cavalier attitude toward organic food practices is in direct conflict with Whole Foods' mission; and his using a business publication and his title as CEO of a publicly held company to espouse his "personal" opinions complete the three strikes making it necessary to kick him OUT.

    A true boycott is a temporary action to encourage necessary change. Dump Mackey, and I'll be happy to return as a customer and perhaps as a stockholder.

  4. emma44 says:

    Marlane, I completely agree, Mackey is an a$$. That's hardly news.  Jacquelyn, well put - I doubt very much that the executive management of my locally available chain supermarket alternatives (Kroger's, Giant and Food Lion) are in any way politically progressive. 
    In any case, the point of a boycott is to change an organization's policies or actions through financial pressure, not to attempt to change the opinions of an individual associated with that organization or to censure free speech. My local Whole Foods supports local farmers and does some good work in my community.  I could see boycotting Whole Foods in support of a groundswell of employee demands for union rights (for example), but boycotting Whole Foods in an attempt to censure John Mackey seems like a misuse of the action.  My best option in any case is to buy locally, directly from growers when possible, and to support small local grocers & farmer's markets as much as I can, regardless of John Mackey's opinions.  As much as I disagree with Mackey, I will not be boycotting Whole Foods. I will avoid it as much as possible in favor of buying direct from local farmers, but... I feel that's my best choice regardless of Mackey's politics. Mackey's personal opinions do not appear to be reflected in the policy of Whole Foods as a company. As I understand it, Whole Foods is a mixed bag - very anti-union stance, and yet provides better than average pay, good company benefits, and employees vote on benefit packages.  On informal polling, the employees of my local WF's store on the whole feel its a very good company to work for. As a company, Whole Foods actions locally are certainly more supportive of my community and local agriculture than the other supermarket chains.
    The purpose of a boycott is to effect policy change - not to attempt to censure free speech.  What company policies or actions is this boycott demanding to change? What outcome does it ask for other than to punish John Mackey for opinions many of us strongly disagree with? John Mackey has a right to his opinions, and I cherish the freedom he has to express them, however odious I may find them.
    I can't find any good reason to boycott Whole Foods over this controversy.

  5. Ken White says:

    Is it just me or are many other average Americans getting sick and tired od the left speaking out against the right to free speech unless you agree with them. John Mackey has a perfect right ( the first ammendment right) to voice his opinion on Health Care and I urge all of us to shop at Whole Foods during the Boycott period.

  6. Michael says:

    I think that Mr. Pollan is a either a bit naive or short sighted. Yes, Whole Foods, after more than a decade of "bait and switch" has made strides in the "support local" department. I just walked thru the Portland Whole Foods, yesterday, and It is beyond me how shipping lamb from New Zealand is sustainable or how it helps support the American sheep farmers. Additionally, given the fact that they are a "supermarket" with so much space devoted to produce, why they need to have their aisles full  of apples from New Zealand and citrus from Australia at the end of August when there is so much locally grown plums, peaches, nectarines, apples and pears available. Lets not even talk about January or February when there stalls are filled with fruit from Chile. Given Whole Food's strategy for continued growth, and the fact that companies like Safeway are now selling hundresds of millions of organic produce, what does he think that Whole Foods is going to do to maintain it's traditionally high margins? Of course, they are going to squeeze the farmers even more. A supermarket is a supermarket regardless of the veneer; there was enough reason to boycott them even before their CEO once again showed his true colors.

  7. emma44 says:

    Hi Ken,

    I'm a very average American, and would be considered "left".  Actually, very "left". If you read my post, you might note that the point I'm trying to make is AGAINST the censure of the free speech of those I disagree with. Is it just me, or are those on the "right" pretty consistently unable to even consider discussion, or hear a voice of reason, let alone consider facts that may interfere with their opinions? Hello??  This Whole Foods thing is a bit of a tempest in an herbal teapot while the world is quite literally melting. Let go of your inner ideologue for a few hours or months  & TRY to educate yourself on the issues of healthcare, climate change, GMO foods, please.  Try looking into, in DEPTH,  what the previous administration did to further the concentration of wealth. Regardless of your political stance, you owe it to yourself, your loved ones, your community and the planet you live on to avail yourself of some basic FACTS.  Temporarily suspend your beliefs and your knee-jerk hostility to those who have a different view, learn as much as you can, and see where you go.

  8. kevin says:

    I boycott Whole Foods because the contiunally buy many of their frozen vegetables from China and when confronted about their philosophies about why were lame. I've never heard of anyone running out of organic and sustainable food to the point where you have to buy from a corrupt and unreliable source such as China. Off topic but it still is an issue.

  9. Kevin makes a good point. Those of you who shop at Whole Foods can continue to do so, but you can and should make your opinions known. Is sourcing food from China to sell in Whole Foods as big an issue as healthcare reform in America? Seems to me that they are linked to some extent. One can fight several battles on at least two fronts, just don't get out flanked by inaction.

  10. libhomo says:

    Whole Foods is an evil, union busting corporation whose greedy CEO is trying to deny government run healthcare knowing that it would save the lives of so many Americans.  Mackey is a monster, and I refuse to shop at Whole Foods until Mackey is gone and Whole Foods supports single payer.

    Government health insurance is our inalienable right as Americans.  The greedy Mackey's of the world who try to deny that are enemies of middle class and poor Americans.  I'm fighting back by boycotting.  I encourage others to do the same.

  11. Kanti says:

    Whole Foods is just another big business, marketing an idea but not good product. Another big business with a business plan that relies on endless growth, not sustainability. Consumers want to think they can be consumers and still live simply. Whole foods promotes conspicuous consumption with a veneer of sustainability. Why do we need vegetables from other countries out of season? How is that environmentally sound. Brown wrapping paper looks environmentally sound, makes the consumer feel like she is doing something for the environment buying folksy brown paper, but it is still wrapping paper. Do something that actually is environmentally sound and recycle the funnies. Whole foods looks like an organic, sustainable market, but it is a charade. Since they purchased the Wild Oats stores in Florida, the ethics and quality are down and packaging and merchandising are up..... too bad.

  12. gb says:

    It blows my mind that Michael Pollan cannot see Whole Foods for the corporate front it really is. The sole purpose of the company is to maximally exploit a profitable niche market, the health oriented yuppy demographic. It might occasionally pay lip service to some rhetoric about "sustainability" or local agriculture, but the instant those come in conflict with maximizing profit, they will always get jettisoned.

    Whole Foods has also been targeted by federal regulators as a budding monopolist, a Walmart of the organic retail industry that has played a pivotal role in the widespread death of smaller local grocery stores across the country. The first boycott calls directed against them that I heard about were called for by local food co-ops and other independent grocery stores across the country. This came in the wake of the company's disgraceful ploy to use the federal antitrust investigation against it to request subpoenas against hundreds of these same local grocery stores and chains across the country, demanding that these businesses essentially hand over to WF attorneys reams of private business information regarding their clientele, sales, business plans, etc. WF claimed that the information would be necessary and sufficient for them to demonstrate to the court that they were not really a monopoly, and that independent natural foods grocers were still thriving.

    I'm still honoring that original boycott, even though the federal case against WF has already concluded with a consent decree and the subpoenas (even though the court did agree with WF to issue them!) were never actually executed.

    (Here in Portland, our small local chain, New Seasons Market, spearheaded opposition to WF's nefarious scheme. Google "whole foods subpoenas" to learn more. )

  13. Michael says:

    "The Walrus And The Carpenter" Dilemma:

    I am forced to agree with Mr. Pollan; this is not a valid motive for a boycott. However, I do think there are proper grounds for those concerned with the future of ‘real’ food to stop shopping there, many of which Mr. Pollan has cited in the past. Were Mr. Mackey still running a 19-employee ‘natural grocery,’ the WSJ wouldn’t have been interested in his opinion, let alone printed it. While Whole Foods’ current size and significance are the reasons so much attention has been paid to Mr. Mackey, they are also indicative of the dilemma that goes well beyond the healthcare issue. You see, unlike Mr. Pollan, I don’t believe that Whole Foods can play any part in the solution of our food predicament, since it is a major part of the problem.

    To finish reading click <a href "http://www.jakobsbowl.com/jakobs_bowl/2009/09/walrus-and-carpenter-dilemma.html" target="_blank" >The Walrus And The Carpenter" Dilemma</a>

  14. farmboy says:

    This is a good discussion that has gone around the horn pretty well, as they say in baseball.  Thanks to gb for posting information on the Whole Food subpoenas issue; I was unaware of that dimension of the story.  Truth be told, the attempted federal prosecution of Whole Foods for anti-trust violations struck me as completely idiotic.  I mean, the US government allowed Exxon and Mobil to merge and we have seen steady concentration of armaments manufacturers who provide the Pentagon with their major weapon systems.  Before entering into competition with those entities, you'd first have to raise an army of your own!  Yet we have Whole Foods, a big player no doubt in its market niche, but how effectively could it prevent competition?  If Whole Foods saw a spike in consumer demand and cornered the market on organic tomato paste, we can grow more organic tomatoes - that's how markets are supposed to work.  There are many, many commercial entities ranging from roadside stands to grocery cooperatives to chain retailers who can compete against Whole Foods.
    That being said, I can't second guess Whole Foods for the subpoenas- when you are taken to court by the federal government, you're going to use every tool at your disposal. 
    No entity in the natural foods world has been more mythologized than Whole Foods.  As many previous posts have stated, it is a corporation - it is statutorily mandated to purse profit, and the shareholders are going to demand that it maximize that profit.  Because of its centralized nature, Whole Foods is incapable of sourcing products locally to any significant degree.  It has probably spent more on the life size pictures of its local farmers than it has buying produce from them.  This won't change as the compant tries to expand and needs to source largere quanties for wider distribution and capitalize on economies of scale.
      The reason that Whole Foods has benefited from so much free, positive publicity is that we have a corporate controlled media.  Such media outlets have a blindspot for any economic activity that isn't corporate as well.  In the corporate media, you'll see a random customer from Whole Foods quoted before any mention of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (100 plus coops, >$1 Billion annual sales).   I saw the anti-trust prosecution as a reflection of the incestuous inbreeding between the corporate-run media and our corporate-run government.  The DC political people came to believe the myth in the corporate media that Whole Foods was this dominant market titan, and felt prosecution was warranted.  Who can prove market domination whenthe total market share in this category is growing leaps and bounds across all marketing outlets?  Just idiots in the corporate patrolled echo chamber.
     Couple of final points.  Mr Mackey raised the critical issue behind our country's health care debacle: we spend 70% of of health care dollars treating people with chronic, preventable illnesses.  When is the last time you heard someone in DC cite that statistic, which is from the Center for Disease Control?  Secondly, there's nothing so vile about Whole Foods to keep me out of their store, just as I'll buy things from Walmart that make the most sense to me.  We spend about 60% of our food budget at the Good Foods coop in Lexington, KY, 30% straight from farmers, and the 10% odds and ends from the various corporate outlets.  As they say in Washington,  there are no permanent allies and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.  Make local, whole and sustainable foods your firm priority, don't drive too far out of your way to find them, and spend your dollars where they go the furthest!

  15. gb says:

    Another angle we ought to contemplate is, "Do we care about our neighbor?"  Some rather sobering and disturbing illumination is thrown on this question and Pollan's attitude about it by Russ Mokhiber's recent Counterpunch piece:
    http://counterpunch.org/mokhiber09092009.html

    Eating wholesome food and patronizing ecologically benign businesses benefits our personal health. In the bigger picture, though, we also ought to care about the health of others. Surely most of us who eat natural and ecologically grown food also know and care about the fact that such food is better for the planet.

    Should we not also care just as much about our fellow humans? The dysfunctional health insurance system in the US is causing human carnage, impoverishment, and many other knock-on effects even extending to ecological ones. Poor people struggling to pay medical bills, are not, for example so likely to take time off work to save the whales, or campaign to elect more progressive political representatives. This kind of social, economic, political and ecological feedback loop is deadly serious, and by no means as tenuous or inconsequential as some might assume.

    One of the chief accusations against "liberals," among those on the political rightwing, is "elitism." While this stereotype is largely attributable to self-serving exaggeration by the latter, there is a kernel of truth in it. People who earn enough to shop at Whole Foods with no thought of expense are likely to be somewhat socially insulated from the effects of poverty, and quite slow to draw the connections I'm trying to suggest here.

    There is also a dangerous kind of petty moralistic element quite evident in Mackey's diatribes that is inherently reactionary and of a piece with every other puritanical, anti-solidarity, anti-equality rightwing toxin. This is a kind of toxin that corrodes human connection, and is also one to which upper-income people in general are definitely at greater risk of being seduced, given both their relative social isolation from the realities faced by most working class people, as well as the soothing personal unction it offers as a possible temporary antidote to any repressed pangs of guilty conscience.

    Like many other toxins, the mantra of "personal responsibility" can be therapeutic in highly moderate doses. But in this particular country, at this point in our history, the current dosage level is already proving highly lethal, and may be the undoing of all of us. How many more Katrinas do we need to wake us up from this extreme egoist intoxication?

    To round out the point I'm trying to get at here, before I step down off my soapbox, may I point out that ecology is about drawing connections and seeing the whole. It is wholly irreconcilable wtth any kind of primitive, dualistic moralism. A true ecological understanding wouldn't allow us to draw neat little lines around our little egoistic sacks of skin, or be smugly satisfied with our own personal health, devil-take-the-hindmost, while that of our fellow citizens is going to hell.

  16. andrew says:

    if only all the people who are boycotting whole foods would instead (or in addition) use some of their own money to help people in their own communities with their health problems. how's that for connection to your local community? for compassion with your neighbors? just think of all the time, money, and energy being devoted to changing laws to change insurance companies to change medical care to change, we hope for the better, a human life. now think about taking all that time, money, and energy, and helping out your neighbor instead. that's a world i'd like to live in.

  17. gb says:

    andrew:
    Actually, most of us spend precious little of our time working to bring about systematic changes for the benefit of our society. Sad but true. It's more popular to focus on oneself and one's narrow little circle. And look at the results: practically every other modern industrialized country has better health care, better public services, higher quality of life, etc. And mostly these are countries with but a fraction of the enormous wealth and human capital the US enjoys. What an irony!

    The narrow focused approach won't cut it when it comes to things like health insurance. The whole social purpose of insurance is to spread risk. When it comes to risks like catastrophic accidents or illness, hazards that everyone faces, the only risk pool that makes sense is a universal one. That is by far the cheapest as well as the most ethical organization of social insurance in the area of health. And we won't get there without a big attitude adjustment. It requires social solidarity in the broadest sense.

  18. yabbi says:

    Too bad. That's the point. WF's CEO's attitude hurts everyone, uninsured people like me who used to shop at Whole Foods, and farmers, too. Mackey's put his foot in it. I'll NEVER go back into a Whole Foods store. They are so over-priced, it's better that I support my local, smaller health food store, anyway. I don't care what happens to their big, over-fed selfish corporate machinery. THEY ARE HIPPOCRITES and even less smart if they think we will fall for their fake 'Awww, let's help the poor farmer" facade. WF has gotten too big for it's britches. They are so arrogant they don't know or care who their clientele is. Too da*n bad.