Whole Foods has undoubtedly changed the organic and natural foods industry, but is it for the better?
For some, Whole Foods is a god-send – a convenient, well-stocked supermarket filled with a trustworthy, if somewhat overpriced, mix of natural and organic foods. For others, Whole Foods is a symbol of capitalism’s ills, a cornerstone of the “Industrialized Organic” complex that is contributing to the death of the small farmer.
Most people I know lie somewhere in the middle: they can’t deny the appeal of a one-stop-shop for their healthy yuppie lifestyles, but they’re skeptical of how conscience-friendly a company can be once it’s grown into a publicly traded corporation. In this week’s Behind the Label, we take a look at the good and the bad of Whole Foods, with a particular focus on its in-house 365 Everyday Value® brand.
If you’re a natural foodie on a budget, you’re probably familiar with 365 Everyday Value, which encompasses a range of products from butter to body wash to balsamic vinegar. 365 products tend to be basic in nature and cheaper than their shelf-mates. But how trust-worthy are they?
Whole Foods had a humble start as a small natural foods store in Austin, Texas, started by 25-year-old college drop-out (and current CEO) John Mackey, his then-girlfriend Rene Lawson, and a staff of 19. Today, Whole Foods is a publicly-traded company with more than 310 stores in the U.S. and United Kingdom and plans for aggressive expansion in secondary markets over the next decade.
In addition to stocking a wide variety of organic, natural, and locally-sourced foods, Whole Foods also offers a number of generic products under its 365 Everyday Value® brand, which claims to “fill your pantry without emptying your pocketbook.” All 365 products are either certified organic or enrolled in the Non-GMO Project, which verifies that genetically modified organisms are not present in the product. As mentioned in the recent Behind the Label on Kashi, verification from the Non-GMO Project can be difficult given the preponderance of genetically engineered crops in America, so Whole Foods’ commitment to this issue is worth noting.
Whole Foods has also been a heavy proponent of GMO labeling, a popular topic in the natural foods community.
Our goal at Whole Foods Market is to provide informed consumer choice with regard to genetically engineered ingredients (also known as GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms). Clearly labeled products enable shoppers who want to avoid foods made with GMOs to do so.
In addition to its stance on GMO transparency, Whole Foods’ quality standards have been recognized as being among the top in the industry, and the company maintains a list of “unacceptable ingredients,” which it says will never appear on its shelves.
This dedication to quality doesn’t stop at food. In 2008, Whole Foods launched the Premium Body Care standard, its very own verification system for natural beauty products. The system focuses on a number of categories, including preservatives, surfactants, and fragrance, and has labeled more than 400 ingredients “unacceptable,” including parabens, polypropylene and polyethylene glycols, sodium lauryl, and laureth sulfates. And in the household cleaning aisle, there’s the Whole Foods Market Eco-Scale rating system, which marks products on a scale from orange (high standards) to green (super duper high standards).
The 365 Everyday Value® brand’s reputation hasn’t always been so squeaky clean. In 2008, a television report from WJLA in Washington, DC, questioned if consumers can trust Whole Foods 365 organic products if the label says that they are made in China.
What do you know about organic foods? It’s pesticide free and more expensive… but it’s worth it… right? Not necessarily. Would you believe “organically grown” in China? How organic can that be?
In a detailed rebuttal to WJLA, Whole Foods’ Organic Certification Coordinator Joe Dickson said that organic products from China can absolutely be certified organic. In the rebuttal, Dickson points out that USDA organic certification measures food integrity regardless of where in the world crops are grown.
Whole Foods Market is a pioneer in promoting and selling natural and organic foods and we have done more in our history as a company to promote and build organics than any other retailer … This is not “selling an image;” this is actually making sure that every one of our 275 stores is operating in compliance with the National Organic Standards and upholding organic integrity in everything they do.
Whole Foods’ assurances have done little to appease foods activists like the Organic Consumers Association, which picketed a Chicago Whole Foods in 2011 for selling genetically modified brands like Tofutti, Kashi, and Boca Burgers. The OCA continues to publish articles attacking Whole Foods practices, including a controversial piece insinuating that Whole Foods was “in bed with” factory farm bad boy Monsanto. That article led to rumors that Monsanto was buying out Whole Foods, which Whole Foods vehemently denied as “crazy talk.”
Whole Foods has taken major strides toward offering organic and GMO-free products at reasonable prices, particularly with its 365 Everyday Value® line. But naturally, the company’s growth and success have earned it many critics, including author and food activist Michael Pollan, who associated Whole Foods with what he calls the “Industrialized Organic” in his popular book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey responded to Pollan’s claims in an open letter:
I am not sure if merely because of our size and success Whole Foods Market deserves the pejorative label “Big Organic” or “Industrial Organic,” or even to be linked to those categories. I would argue instead that organic agriculture owes much of its growth and success over the past 20 years to Whole Foods Market’s successful growth and commitment to organic. As an organization we continually challenge ourselves to be responsible and ethical tenants of the planet. Through our stores, large and small organic farmers, both local and international, can offer their products to an increasingly educated population that is more interested in organics every day.
Pollan, who professes much respect for Mackey and Whole Foods, responded:
After visiting a great many large organic farms to research my book, many of them your suppliers, it seems to me undeniable that organic agriculture has industrialized over the past few years, and that Whole Foods has played a part in that process–for good and for ill … And as I tried to make clear in my account of the organic industry, much is gained when organic gets big … But surely we can recognize all these important gains without turning a blind eye to the costs: the sacrifice of small farmers and of some of the founding principles of organic farming (its commitment to polyculture, for example; to “whole” rather than highly processed foods; to social and economic sustainability, etc.)
It all seems to trace back to the big corporation/small business dilemma: do you buy your organic kale and locally-harvested honey at the strip mall supermarket, or do you support your local farmers and neighborhood natural foods store? If price wasn’t an inhibitor, I’m sure most conscious consumers would go with the second option.
But even on Whole Foods’ shelves that conundrum exists. Buy the locally-sourced salad dressing for $13.99, or the generic 365 version for $3.99? The up-and-coming fair trade brand body lotion for $15, or the 365 cream for $5?
While I appreciate the lower-priced options, I can’t help but notice a disconnect. If Whole Foods wants to truly support local farmers and small businesses, the company should stop undercutting their offerings with its lower-priced, mass-produced, 365-branded items.
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Image: Robert Banh