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 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 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 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 Just say something.

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15 Comments on "Say It Ain’t So, Whole Foods…When Your Favorite Company Takes the Stonewalling Approach"

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May 4, 2007 11:29 pm

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… Read more »

Mary McGonigle-Martin
May 5, 2007 12:41 am

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 more »

May 5, 2007 1:41 am

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… Read more »

Dave Milano
May 5, 2007 3:30 am

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… Read more »

May 5, 2007 7:47 am

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: (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… Read more »

Mary McGonigle-Martin
May 5, 2007 10:05 am

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… Read more »

May 5, 2007 10:44 am

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… Read more »

Mary McGonigle-Martin
May 5, 2007 10:57 am

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.

May 5, 2007 8:04 pm

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… Read more »

Mary McGonigle-Martin
May 5, 2007 10:03 pm

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… Read more »

May 6, 2007 7:13 pm

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

May 9, 2007 12:48 pm

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 . 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… Read more »

Mary McGonigle-Martin
May 11, 2007 9:56 am

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

May 29, 2007 5:54 pm

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… Read more »