Say It Ain't So, Whole Foods...When Your Favorite Company Takes the Stonewalling Approach
My family and friends will tell you I’m a Whole Foods nut…And I suppose I am. When some friends “roasted” me for a special birthday a few years back, several actually put together a video spoof in which they made believe I was really a junk food junkie, and part of their “proof” was interviews with local Whole Foods employees who “testified” that I only showed up there to pick up about-to-be-discarded veggies just so I’d look the part of a foodie.
I can tell you the fine points of the salad bars and bulk food bins among the half dozen Whole Foods near where I live in the Boston area. I’ve made my feelings about the company known in a few blog postings as well, including extensive reporting in March on a speech by the company’s president, John Mackey, who was predicting a new “ecological era” for agriculture and food production. That speech suggests an openness by Mackey to discussion of potentially controversial topics.
So I was miffed today when I received an email back from a Whole Foods media relations person in response to my request for information on how the chain was dealing with the unfolding melamine contamination scandal—whether it has concerns that the stuff may have gotten into its meat or protein powders and whether it’s doing any investigation—in connection with a possible BusinessWeek.com column and it stated:
Hi David, Unfortunately I am unable to help you out. Due to an article that was written by Business Week magazine in the recent past, our company leadership will no longer allow any information or interviews to Business Week or businessweek.com. I appreciate you thinking of us for this story and apologize for being unable to provide you with assistance for your story.
So I wrote back as follows:
Can you tell me which article it was? I could see you not speaking to that writer again. But seems a bit narrow-minded to condemn an entire company because of the actions of one (or a few) individuals. Would be like me refusing to shop at any Whole Foods because a manager used poor judgment in dealing with me (which has happened to me at Whole Foods). Yet I remain a devoted customer.
Besides, this is a matter involving public health. To refuse comment to a major publication raises red flags that you may have something to hide. (Just my thoughts, not the reactions of BW.)
I eventually received a brief note acknowledging my statement, but no change in the decision. (And for the record, it looks to me as if BusinessWeek and BusinessWeek.com have published both favorable and critical articles (the critical ones to the effect the company's stock might have been overvalued) about the company; a recent one played up the company’s commitment to local farming.)
What’s going on here? Well, the phrase “our company leadership” tells me the order not to talk came from the top guy, CEO John Mackey. Assuming that’s the case, I read a couple of possibilities into it.
It could be just immature behavior. It’s kind of like when a professional baseball player refuses to speak with one of the local newspapers or television stations because he didn’t like something that was said about him. I can understand it from an immature and overpaid Major League ballplayer, but Whole Foods?
I’ve interviewed lots of top corporate executives, and I’ve also advised them on how to handle their media relations. To me, one of the biggest sins any executive can commit is to be inconsistent in his or her treatment of the media. If you speak to the media when things are going well, then you owe it to your constituencies to speak when things aren’t going so well, or if an unpleasant subject comes up. If a particular publication takes pot shots at you, then you show you are a big boy (or big girl), remain respectful of the media’s right to free speech, and stay above that stuff.
But maybe it’s more than immature behavior. The conspiratorial side of me wonders…is this response really a diversion from the bigger story of what Whole Foods might be doing to investigate possible contamination of its food by melamine, and any of the other contaminants that have hit pet food? Maybe Whole Foods, like the rest of the food establishment, just doesn’t want to think too hard about the possibly awful implications of this situation, and is using antagonism toward BusinessWeek as an excuse to deflect questioning.
And then I ask myself: Am I being too hard on Whole Foods? Shouldn’t I be looking to the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for answers on how the melamine tainting is affecting our food supply? What about other grocery chains?
Yet the reality is that Whole Foods has positioned itself as doing what those entities won’t do to ensure food safety. Indeed, at its core, the Whole Foods brand is about insurance—insurance that I won’t find food there containing dangerous substances or having gone through processing known to be bad for me. I know that isn’t true literally, since it sells foods with sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, and produce that's been sprayed (and labeled as such). But the company works to ensure I can avoid the contaminants that are present in most factory-produced agriculture—hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, triglycerides, artificial sweeteners. In the Mackey speech I referred to earlier, he spoke passionately about moving Whole Foods “beyond organic,” to monitor farming practices and animal treatment practices.
In return for providing that insurance, Whole Foods charges premium prices and brings in profit margins well above what other grocery chains earn (it’s not known as “Whole Paycheck” for nothing) and for many years, its stock price grew at a much faster rate than other grocery chains. So I feel as if Whole Foods needs to keep its end of the bargain here. If it agrees with the FDA that there’s nothing for its customers to worry about in this melamine scandal, and that a little bit of melamine in its pork and chicken and protein powders is okay, then say so. If it disagrees, but doesn’t know if its products are tainted, then say so. If it is investigating, then say so. Say so via publications other than BusinessWeek or BusinessWeek.com. Just say something.