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.

I think the scales may just now be falling from the eyes of the American public as far as believing that any one entity (especially a corporate of governmental one) has the ability to adequately regulate the safety of foods and feed. Since the process is vertically integrated and global, there is too much information that can't be known with any certainty. Unless you grow it yourself/ watch others grow it on a regular basis, you'll never know exactly what's in your food or how it was raised.

After the E. coli in spinach incident last fall I read an op ed by a doctor in the New England Journal of Medicine. He had grown up in Wisconsin, remembered small numbers of cows grazing on grass and eating fresh produce from surrounding farms. Despite this, his answer to the E. coli problem in produce was to irradiate it. After all, it "worked" for beef. I was pretty appalled by this solution, but I truly think it is all the USDA and FDA can realistically offer. They can't be everywhere at once with the few inspectors they have. And they have no control over foreign producers.

Obtaining truly nutritious and safe food is more and more the responsibility of the individual consumer. Whether we will defend our right to take up this mantle for ourselves is likewise an individual decision.

Mary McGonigle-Martin's picture

Does anyone else feel the need to buy a small farm where you can grow fruits and vegetables, own a cow and a few chickens?

When Chris pancreas was in the healing stage, our final doctor was a GI specialist. In his career, he has seen many cases of food borne illnesses. He also worked in 3rd world countries. He knows first hand the destruction caused by pathogenic bacteria and the agony families endure; ours being one of many in his career. He believes radiation of our food will be happening in the near future.

Has anyone read about using a teaspoon of Clorox bleach (no other brand will work) per gallon of water for killing pathogenic bacteria in meat, fruits and vegetables?

Food irradiation happening in the near future? Where has that doctor been? Food irradiation has been happening for over 20 years. More and more types of food are added each year. Herbs and spices were early candidates for irradiation.

Yes, clorox kills lots of nasty stuff. And the good stuff. And is a toxin itself as well as an environmental hazard. I knew lot of people who cloroxed their veggies in the '80s. I've always considered it a bad idea.

IT has been previously said, but I add my own slant to the observation - using radiation and other extreme methods doesn't address the inherent problems of animals made sick by horrible treatment and impropoer diets combined with slaughter houses that are dangerous and conditions that are inhumane and encourage pathogens. Bad practices in produce have created problems there as well.

Our country and the insecors and decisiosn makers are not addressing the core issues, just looking for ever more bizarre band aid solutions. Time to go out enjoy the sun and pick some wild greens..

Mary asked if anyone felt compelled to "buy a small farm where you can grow fruits and vegetables, own a cow and a few chickens." Here's an answer, of sorts.

Recently a newly arrived transplant to my very rural corner of Pennsylvania lamented that he now lives too far away from Whole Foods, which he loves, and depended upon when he lived in the city. My answer to him was that he now has BETTER. Here in the country there is always somebody nearby raising food the right way, and willing to sell it. Some do it as a primary or side business; some do it (like me) to dispose of overflow from their family animals and garden. What isn't produced locally we can buy through cooperatives.

Kirsten is right that we cannot depend on big business or big government for goodness and safety. The reason is that those big systems are designed and operated by people just like you and me, that is to say, they are imperfect. There is no more chance that a system will be good and righteous than any man. But their hugeness simultaneously insulates them from their customers, and gives them inertia. When something goes wrong, and it always does, it tends to be a big and intractable problem. (There, by the way, is the answer to Macs earlier question as to why we speak of systems as though they are living beings. Its because systems are essentially just that--living beings--with lives provided entirely by us. Its only natural that they would exhibit all our foibles.)

SmallMarts are THE way to go, especially for food. They diminish the effect of errors (and crimes) the same way a diversified investment portfolio minimizes financial risk. More importantly, they better align production methods with customer desires, by bringing consumers into direct, face-to-face contact with producers.

Davids story of Whole Foods is emblematic of the mess were in. Getting out of the mess, now that the Jeffersonian ideal of a an agrarian America has been obliterated by industrialized food systems and a landscape modified to meet the needs of centralized systems, is going to be difficult, if not impossible.

The Clorox bleach soak that Mary mentioned is a decades old technique that I have seen associated with Dr. Hazel Parcells. Ann Louise Gittleman endorses the technique in her books. You can read more about the technique here: http://www.compwellness.net/eJournal/1999/0830.htm (no affliaton) Ther is also a link on that page to more about Dr. Parcells, who lived into her second century apparently.

While I am not particularly worried about the dilute Clorox (sodium hypochlorite) itself as used in the food soak, I also figured that the good lactic acid producing bacteria would be wiped out with whatever bad bugs were there, too. For vegetable fermentations, such as homemade sauerkraut, that would be a problem. I was inclined to try it with some other items, but my biochemist hubby dissuaded me.

David Gumpert's picture

A nutritionist I have consulted with and whose judgment I respect, advises using the Clorox approach--I believe soaking organic produce for half an hour and conventional produce for two hours. She also advises against buying from bins. She is most concerned about people handling the produce and the grains in the bins. I haven't followed either suggestion. On the produce, I thought my resistance had to do with spending so much extra time dealing with my food. But I think it has more to do with the fact that such a step amounts to processing, just as pasteurization and irradiation amount to processing. As Linda indicates, processing kills good bacteria as well as bad bacteria. I am buying organic produce to avoid pesticides and irradiation, as well as bleaching.
Kirsten is on to something when she suggests we are on our own. For us non-farmers, that means getting out into the country and establishing relationships with farmers committed to producing wholesome products.

Everyone knows Im a little fixated on e-coli contamination. Keep in mind the latest spinach e-coli outbreak was organic spinach. High risk foods for e-coli contamination are beef, raw milk, spinach, lettuce, & sprouts. After all the information that has been exchanged on this blog about e-coli, I have come to the depressing conclusion that e-coli 0157:H7 will continue to threaten to our food supply. Our inhumane food practices have created a nightmare. Since I dont have a vegetable garden, my only source for produce is the health food store.

Every time I make a salad from the organic salad bar at our local health food store, I cant help but think that Ive just made an e-coli salad. Before Chris became ill, I never viewed my salad mixed with three different types of lettuce, spinach, sprouts and array of vegetables as possible danger. Now I do.

Unfortunately, the next e-coli outbreak is waiting to happen. Our family is manned with probiotics, but I will forever be uneasy eating salads. It hasnt changed my behavior.I still eat salads, but I wont make them for Chris anymore. I just cant take the risk that it could be contaminated. Before becoming ill from e-coli, he would eat a nightly salad of romaine lettuce, spinach, grated carrots and zucchini.

I dont know what to think about the Clorox bleach. One source says its good another says its harmful. If I used it, it would allow me to eat in peace. Thanks Anna for the website. I will have to do some more reading on the topic.

Have you read Wild Fermentations by Sandor Katz? Here is a description of the book...
Bread. Cheese. Wine. Beer. Coffee. Chocolate. Most people consume fermented foods and drinks every day. For thousands of years, humans have enjoyed the distinctive flavors and nutrition resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi. Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods is the first cookbook to widely explore the culinary magic of fermentation. "Fermentation has been an important journey of discovery for me," writes author Sandor Ellix Katz. "I invite you to join me along this effervescent path, well trodden for thousands of years yet largely forgotten in our time and place, bypassed by the superhighway of industrial food production." The flavors of fermentation are compelling and complex, quite literally alive. This book takes readers on a whirlwind trip through the wide world of fermentation, providing readers with basic and delicious recipes-some familiar, others exotic-that are easy to make at home. The book covers vegetable ferments such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and sour pickles; bean ferments including miso, tempeh, dosas, and idli; dairy ferments including yogurt, kefir, and basic cheesemaking (as well as vegan alternatives); sourdough bread-making; other grain fermentations from Cherokee, African, Japanese, and Russian traditions; extremely simple wine- and beer-making (as well as cider-, mead-, and champagne-making) techniques; and vinegar-making. With nearly 100 recipes, this is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging fermentation cookbook ever published.

Fermented foods are a great way to get the probiotics that you need to keep the E-coli under control.

Thanks Miguel. I will look into some of these recipes. I eat fermented vegetables everyday and drink a product called Kombucha. Its a fermented Chinese tea. My greatest challenge is getting my son the picky eater to eat or drink anything fermented. He does eat organic yogurt everyday, but for the other productsNO WAY!

Im going to try making coconut water kefir this summer. I heard it tastes good. If I sweeten it with stevia, he might drink it.

I know Sandor Katz and regularly ferment veggies, making my own sauerkraut. Good stuff, easy to do, very good for intestinal health. Chris could eat lacto-fermented vegetables that you make and it would go miles towards repairing his gut's health.

Mary said, "Keep in mind the latest spinach e-coli outbreak was organic spinach." I have to ask, organic by the USDA new standards? Lawds! That means nothing anymore. Most of my farmer friends who grow for farmer's markets and private customers are running fast away from the USDA and FDA's organic standard. They are coming up with a peer-to-peer non-governmental program called Naturally Raised.

Do you know that Monsanto got the rules changed so that producers could get an organic label on a promise of future performance. They intend to go organic but in the transition 3 year period they wanted to claim the organic label. Pshaw! Factory-farmed organic means nothing especially if it is shipped thousands of miles to your local store.

Local food where you know the farmer, that's the only hope for wholesome food.

A question for Mary. I fully empathize with Chris's plight, but if he had been in a car accident would you prevent him from ever getting in a car again?

Yes, because we dont have other choices for transportation. Tony and I commute 35 miles to our jobs and most relatives live 50 miles away. Driving a car is a high risk activity and California freeways are crazy. My husband and I take precautions when we drive (we work at the same school). We drive the van instead of the small car, because if were we were in an accident we would have a better chance of surviving. We make sure we drive in the fast lane because there is an emergency lane to veer into incase you have to slam on the breaks. We make sure there is a good distance between our car and the one in front of us. We dont weave in and out of lanes. We change lanes and drive ahead of someone who is weaving in their lane. We dont drive behind large trucks. This is common sense, practical defensive driving. It decreases your chance of having an accident.

Im doing the same thing now with foods that are high risk for e-coli. Im doing defensive eating. Everyone has been empathetic about Chris story, but no one really knows what e-coli 0157:H7 contamination with HUS means until you go through it. It would be irresponsible of me as a parent to ever feed Chris any of the high risk vegetable foods unless I grew the food myself or obtained it from a 100% safe source. I dont have that option right now. The only option I have is buying organic produce from my local health food store and who knows where all the produce comes from. What this means for my son is that he wont be drinking raw milk or eating lettuce and raw spinach.

Did anyone see that it was diethylene glycol in medicine syrup from China that poisoned a bunch of people in Panama not long ago?

Mary (& anyone else who wants a "safer" source for salad produce),

Of course, I have no idea about your space and I know your spare time is minimal, but if you get a chance, take a look at www.squarefootgardening.com . You can make a very productive "salad" garden with a few square feet, either in containers or raised beds using this technique designed by Mel Bartholomew. My dad has been using this technique for many years. If you go to the library to find the SFG book, make sure you get the latest edition. It has refinements that make SFG easier than ever before (oh, that sounds like a TV commercial :-).

I used to have huge veggie garden but in the last few years I just couldn't bring myself to do the work it required. But last year I built a 4x4 ft square foot raised bed and planted it with things that our CSA farm share either doesn't contain or provide enough of. It was quite easy to build myself (I even had the lumber cut to size for me at the lumberyard so I didn't have to get out the saw or tie the long lumber to the roof rack). I only had to drill pilot holes, screw the square frame together, staple weed barrier cloth to the bottom, and make a level spot. The most labor is in mixing the "soiless soil" (peat moss or coconut coil), good compost, and vermiculite)for the growing medium. That is a job for two people but I tried it alone. "Soiless" soil means no digging with SFG! Very little weeding or soil amending because you are not using native soil. I just add compost or worm castings to it when I start new stuff (or compost tea during the growing season). You can even use the SFG technique for planting salad stuff in pots. I have a huge gorgeous rainbow chard in a pot on my front patio now. No back breaking labor and maintenence just takes a few minutes a few times a week.

A small SFG might be a way for Chris and your family to have some salad with a lot less worry. My son helps me choose some seeds for things he likes (little midget carrots) and I have found him out in the garden eating the lettuce when he is playing (& trying to get his friends to eat it, too). I'm going to build another SFG soon for strawberries, at his request.

SFG really is a minimal time, space, and labor commitment (I am truly a lazy gardener these days and am amazed at what grows with so little effort) and perhaps it could be a really positive and fun thing that you and Chris can do together. Just a thought (ok, a lot of thoughts). Just in time for summer crops!

Thanks Anna. We will have space soon because Chris has outgrown his swing set. Thanks for all the information.

Mrs. Martin, I understand where you're coming from with your son. I just went through a couple-day sickness with stomach pain and diarrhea and just a week after starting up with a cow-share again, the same thoughts went through my head. Anyway I just want say that I think you're doing exactly what THEY want you to do, it's the so-called normal thing that people would do too so don't feel bad but also don't let those feelings cloud your judgment. It's absolutely your choice. But as many have already said, don't deny your son the foods he needs with all the right vitamins and nutrition his body needs to fight the disease. I can't help but believe that so many like yourself would do the exact opposite of what you and they are doing if there was a reliable authority which just said 'these foods are fine' over and over again or held their peace.

Would anyone be worried if no one had said anything about the spinach like a century ago? How of many people have gone back to Taco Bell after the scare has past? I think a lot and it's because of the media IN WHATEVER FORM. Where we hear more bad about whatever even with all the good. I remember that spinach scare well because I worked in an organic market at the time: it was irrational to me, in one moment spinach become like cyanide and no one at all thought about it's good, not one even questioned it but blindly towed the party line.

Irony is that we had better health and better food when public health warnings were less.