Detailed Reply to Pollan Letter

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your recent letter to me. I appreciate the fact that you wrote the letter in an overall positive tone. I want to respond to your letter with an equally positive tone and match your efforts in "constructive criticism." I'll take your letter section by section, with my responses below each section. I will then conclude by writing about some of the new initiatives Whole Foods Market will be beginning very soon, which I hope you'll find exciting. I know that I'm very excited about them.

I'll only say a couple of things as an introduction. One of these is that I'm disappointed that you didn't respond at all to my short section on the history of the organic foods movement and how difficult it was for Whole Foods Market to develop sufficient supply and scale to actually get authentic organic foods into the hands (and mouths) of millions of people. You completely ignored that section. Without Whole Foods Market's pioneering work and without the growth of our stores and distribution centers, it is very unlikely that the organic foods movement would be where it is today. You obviously admire the retail food co-op movement (which I supported myself in Austin prior to co-founding Whole Foods Market), but in fact this movement has never been large enough to successfully grow the organic foods movement. In 2005 the total sales of all the retail food co-ops in the United States combined was only about $700 million (source–National Cooperative Grocers Association), which was less than 15% of Whole Foods Market total sales that year. The simple truth is that the organic foods movement was largely a fringe movement with the number of adherents numbering only in the thousands before Whole Foods Market came into existence. The year-round supply of organic foods across the United States today consumed by millions and millions of people is in large part due to the success and growth of Whole Foods Market. Why do you not understand or appreciate this truth?

My second disappointment is that you don't comment on the examples we gave of supporting networks and co-ops of small producers and family farms throughout our supply chain. I gave two solid examples in my letter—CROPP for Organic dairy products and Country Natural Beef—but there are many others. These networks and co-ops of small producers and family farms that banded together for distribution and marketing economies of scale are an important alternative to the large scale corporate farms that you find so alarming.

Last month, John Mackey, the president of Whole Foods, wrote me a letter (also published on the Whole Foods Web site), taking issue with some of the points I have made about his grocery chain-in my book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," in my column for TimesSelect and in some of my public remarks. What follows is my response to Mr. Mackey.

Michael, just for the record I'm co-founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Directors, but not the President of Whole Foods Market. A.C. Gallo and Walter Robb are Co-Presidents of the company.

June 12, 2006
Dear John Mackey,
Thank you for your letter, and for the time you spent with me in Austin last month. I was delighted to have a chance to meet and to learn more about Whole Foods. Thank you, too, for the $25 gift certificate, which more than makes up for the $6 I spent on the disappointing Argentine organic asparagus. Though I know you are troubled by some of the critical things I have written and said publicly about Whole Foods, it was clear from our conversation that we agree about a great many things, including our concerns about the future direction of organic agriculture. Since you are in a position to do much to shape that future, that cheers me no end.
I want to take this opportunity to address some of the points you made in your letter, and to pose a few of the questions that it begs. I hope you will take my remarks in the spirit in which they are offered - as constructive criticism of an important institution that can do much to advance what you call the "reformation" of the American food system, something we both want.
Let me start by explaining why I did not seek to interview anyone from Whole Foods for my book, which you imply in your letter represents a journalistic lapse. (You should know I have interviewed people from the company several times in the past, particularly in connection with an April 2001 story I did for The New York Times Magazine "Naturally," for which I interviewed Margaret Wittenberg. Over the years I have also interviewed several store employees of Whole Foods and a great many of its suppliers.) For the purposes of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I approached Whole Foods less as a journalist than a consumer, since my goal was to capture how the store represents itself and the food it sells to a typical shopper: the signs and displays, the brochures, the labels, the photographs on the walls. Admittedly, this is not a systematic way to describe a supermarket chain-it depends on the sample of stores I visited and what they happened to be selling on any given day. It could be you have stores that sell substantially more local food than the stores I observed. But the fact remains that what I observed I observed, and that is what I wrote in the book. Nothing in your letter leads me to believe my account of what you sell in my local Whole Foods or the farms it comes from is inaccurate.

It is difficult to discuss this with you here, Michael, because you are falling back upon your own subjective experience as your only reference point. I want to point out, however, that we never merely "observe what we observe." We bring to our observations our expectations, beliefs, biases, and world views, and these serve as perceptual filters that tremendously influence our observations. One of the main purposes of my letter to you was to try to get you to examine some of your biases and beliefs about Whole Foods Market that may be filtering what you are actually observing about us. If you come into our stores (or anywhere else) looking for what you don't like, it is all-too-easy to find it.

With all due respect, Michael, I also think your response here is pretty weak because the fact is that you didn't try to contact us. I think if you are going to criticize us publicly to hundreds of thousands of people and are going to compare us unfavorably with Wal-Mart, then you at least owe us the courtesy of talking to us first and hearing our side of the story. You certainly spent plenty of time talking directly to Joel Salatin for the book and didn't approach him as simply an innocent "consumer." Quite the opposite: you went and lived at his farm for about a week. That kind of first hand knowledge and experience is the essence of good journalism in my opinion and I think Whole Foods Market also deserved to be treated fairly and with respect.

I do appreciate your offer of journalistic access and "transparency," though you may be interested to know that other journalists have not found you and other Whole Foods executives to be so accessible in the past. When researching his important new book "Organic, Inc.," Sam Fromartz was turned down in his effort to arrange an interview with you. He was told (in an email from Amy Hopfensperger): "… we do not grant interviews for book requests at this time for several reasons. With the explosive growth in the organic and natural food industry and Whole Foods Market's position as the leader in this industry, we are not interested in leaking any competitive information that may benefit our competitors." I would hope this does not accurately reflect your feelings about talking to journalists, and to judge from my recent contacts with you, it does not. Transparency at every level is critical to reforming the food system.

Regarding Sam Fromartz, there is a misunderstanding here that I believe I can clear up. Whole Foods Market is very open to journalists who are writing stories in newspapers or magazines or doing radio or television shows about our business. This accessibility has resulted in several thousand stories in every kind of media about the company. However, Whole Foods Market hasn't been very open to book authors in the past primarily because until Sam Fromartz, no author had ever approached us about writing a history of the organic or natural products industry. Instead, each year we are approached by several dozen business book authors who want to write in detail about our management methods, company culture, and/or strategic direction. We've almost always turned down these types of book requests since we believe our management, culture, and strategy are important proprietary information that we are not eager for our competitors to get hold of. However, in fact, we actually did work with Fromartz to some extent as both Margaret Wittenberg, our Vice President of Quality Standards, and David Smith, our Vice President of Marketing at the time, did talk with him while he was researching his book. He therefore wasn't shut out from access to all of Whole Foods leadership, although I didn't personally talk with him. By the way, I read Fromartz's book, Organic, Inc., which I thought was very good, and I wish now that I had personally met with him.

We also cooperated with Peter Singer in his latest book, The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter. Peter was able to interview me directly because I greatly admire him and am indebted to him for helping to wake me up to the reality of animal suffering (he is probably more responsible than anyone else for my vegan diet). I've talked to our PR team about this and we will be open in the future to granting interviews to authors writing about the natural or organic food industries. We will still not be accessible to business book authors, however, for the reasons I mentioned above. In any case, if you had approached Whole Foods Market for an interview with me it would have been given. Why? Because I loved your book The Botany of Desire and would have given you the interview just to meet you and talk about food. This is the same reason I gave Peter Singer the interview. Both you and Peter are aligned with many of my values and I want to support both of you with your work. It is as simple as that.

I confess I am of two minds in deciding how to respond to the substance of your letter: whether I should attempt to cast doubt on your claims that Whole Foods wholeheartedly supports local, artisanal, and grass-based agriculture, or whether to simply applaud and encourage your inclinations in that direction. I take heart in the fact that you feel compelled to defend a commitment to these forms of agriculture, not only because I share it, but because you are in as strong a position as any individual in America today to help rebuild local food chains and build a market for pasture-based livestock farming. I don't need to tell you how important these two things are - or that the survival of local agriculture is critical to preserving farmland near America's metropolitan areas; to reducing our consumption of fossil fuel (17 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption goes to feeding ourselves); and to making the food system better able to withstand threats, whether from pathogens or terrorists (or both). The decentralization of the food system is not just a matter of sentiment or political correctness but of national security. Further, as we discussed, grass farming represents one of the most encouraging trends in American agriculture today, holding out great promise for improving the health of the animals, of the American land, and of the American consumer.
Yet, to be perfectly candid, I have trouble squaring some of your claims of support for local agriculture with what I see when I shop at Whole Foods. I see more signage about the importance of local produce than I see actual items of local produce. You write that 45 percent of your suppliers are local, i.e. located within 200 miles of the store - an impressive statistic, but perhaps a misleading one. Given the concentration of organic produce in a tiny handful of corporate hands (with Cal-Organic/Grimmway and Earthbound dominating the market nationally), it's not surprising that you would have a relatively high number of local suppliers among your vendors – since just two of those vendors could supply the great bulk of your produce sales. The more telling statistic would be this: As a percentage of sales (rather than of vendors), how much of the produce sold at Whole Foods is produced locally? My guess is that number is considerably lower than 45 percent, even if you count Cal-Organics and Earthbound as "local farmers" in California, a claim that strikes me (and would probably strike them) as a stretch. Leaving aside food miles, these are not the sorts of corporations most people have in mind when they talk about local agriculture.

Since you've already shared that your personal observations are the only basis for assertions about Whole Foods Market's support of large industrial organic producers, let me restate some of the statistics I provided in my previous letter: "Of our top 150 suppliers/brokers in the produce category, 22% of our purchases are from large corporate farms and 78% are from independent and family farms (some of these smaller farms pool together under one brand name to help improve marketing and distribution). 60% of these 150 suppliers grow organically, and/or represent growers who do so." In addition, Whole Foods Market is currently doing business with over 2,400 independent farms. My point in reiterating these statistics is to hammer in one very important point about Whole Foods Market: we buy from a variety of organic farms-some are very large such as Grimmway, some are very small, and the great majority is someplace in between. Both your and Fromartz's books over-emphasize the growth of the larger organic farms and mostly ignore the 2,400+ smaller and middle sized farms that Whole Foods Market does business with. In almost any vibrant distribution system, some of the producers are going to be substantially larger and more successful than most others. This is the normalized pattern we find in every growing business system, but this doesn't mean that only a few companies monopolize the organic produce industry. They certainly don't as their relatively small 22% share of Whole Foods Market produce business clearly proves.

Your letter to me, however, does raise some interesting questions about scale that your book never addresses: when is a farm too large to be considered "small?" How far can food be transported before it is no longer considered "local?" How much machinery is a farm allowed to use before it becomes "industrial" (and therefore no longer "good")? Your book doesn't hesitate to assign heroes and villains to a very complex story, but unfortunately it never defines its terms so the reader is left wondering when a hero slips over to the "dark side" and actually becomes a villain. In your book and the various interviews I've read and heard, Earthbound seems to be "guilty" of successfully growing to become a large "industrialized corporate farm." At what point in their growth did they cross over? At what point is big too big? In point of fact, however, Earthbound is not quite the large monolithic industrialized organic farm that you portray it as being. Earthbound buys its product from 185 organic farms of varying sizes and consolidates this diverse group of farms together under one brand and one distribution system. This greatly lowers marketing and distribution costs and makes organic greens more affordable for millions of people. Isn't that a good thing? When exactly does the use of machinery or input substitution cause an organic farm to become an "industrial organic farm?" How many different crops must it grow, and how many different animal species must be integrated into the farm, before it is considered a polyculture farm? Do you also believe that being a corporation is inherently a bad thing? In your book, Joel Salatin is portrayed in heroic terms. How large and successful could he become before he was no longer a hero in your book? If his farm became a corporation, took in investment capital, and successfully grew, would it no longer be ethically good in your opinion?

Speaking of Salatin, while I find many things that he is doing to be very inspirational, there are other practices of his that deserve criticism, especially regarding animal welfare. A Whole Foods Market animal compassion representative has visited his farm and was disturbed by some things that he observed. In addition, Singer and Mason's new book offers the following criticism of some of Salatin's practices:

"But is Polyface really such a good place for animals? Rabbits on the farm are kept in small suspended wire cages. Chickens may be on grass, but instead of being free to roam, they are crowded into mobile wire pens. A review of sustainable poultry systems by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service noted that with Salatin's pens: 'The confined space inside the pens makes bird welfare a concern' and the crowding 'can lead to pecking problems,' because the birds lower in the pecking order cannot run away. Out of five sustainable poultry systems investigated, the mobile wire pens were placed last for animal welfare, with a 'poor to fair' rating. Herman Beck-Chenoweth, author of Free Range Poultry Production and Marketing and a poultry producer himself, calls Salatin's way of raising chickens 'a confinement system with a grass floor,' adding that although it is a big improvement over the broiler houses used by companies such as Tyson and Perdue... it is a confinement system just the same." (The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter—Peter Singer and Jim Mason p. 255-256).

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. (Sam Fromartz's "Organic Inc." demonstrates as much, as I think does "The Omnivore's Dilemma," especially in Chapter Nine.) Big supermarket chains will naturally find it easier and therefore more profitable to buy from big farms selling lots of one thing. This is the way of the world, or at least of capitalism. And as I tried to make clear in my account of the organic industry, much is gained when organic gets big; I offer the story of Earthbound Farms as a positive case in point. The water and soil in California are in far better shape because of large-scale organic farms like Earthbound, as you point out in your letter. (The statistics you cite in your letter speak eloquently to this point.) 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.)
We both know other executives in the organic industry who accept these trade-offs as inevitable and necessary. They call themselves realists, and believe that those of us who regret the passing of local organic agriculture and the founding values of the organic movement should just get over it - that the organic Twinkie or organic Coca Cola is good news for the environment, case closed. You obviously don't feel this way. Your letter and our conversation make clear that you care deeply about the values behind the organic movement, that much more is at stake here than pesticide residues. That's why I would rather not get into an argument about "how local are you." What I would much rather do is applaud you for carrying however much local food you carry, and to urge you to make it possible for your stores to carry much more.

If people freely choose to eat Twinkies or drink Coca Cola, then I would prefer that they be organic for the very reason that you listed above–it's better for the environment. Regarding carrying more local food, thanks for the encouragement. I agree with you. I'll have much more to say about this at the end of my letter.

As we discussed, the company's shift a few years ago from "backdoor sales" to a regional distribution system has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for small local farmers to sell directly to individual Whole Foods stores. For some farmers, this may be a boon as you suggest, but for the many Bay Area farmers I have spoken to, it has shut them out – they don't grow enough to supply a distribution center, or the centers are too far from their farms. You write that all of your stores are in fact free to buy locally, which I was surprised and delighted to hear. I hope you'll take steps to encourage them in that direction. I have interviewed dozen of organic farmers for whom selling to Whole Foods over the years has been critical to their success; for what it's worth, they feel much less welcome since you moved to the regional distribution model. Which leads me to my next question: is there anyone, at the regional level, charged with the specific mission of locally sourcing as much food as possible? And do Whole Foods buyers have the authority to pay a premium for local produce, in the same way they now routinely pay a premium for organic? Such a commitment by Whole Foods to local sourcing – not everything, but whatever and whenever possible – could go a long way toward rebuilding local food systems across America.

Michael, let me agree up front with you that Whole Foods Market needs to do a better job of helping more local growers sell directly to our stores without going through our distribution center. This is true for the Bay Area as well. I know that over the years some smaller farmers have stopped selling to us and have been frustrated with our Regional Distribution Centers. We should and will do a better job of this in the future because we are making it a company priority. That being said, neither your book nor your letter is fair to Whole Foods Market on this issue. You can always find frustrated ex-suppliers for just about any company in the world and Whole Foods Market is no exception. I think this is another example of your expectations possibly coloring your observations-you are seeing what you expect (want?) to see. Below is a partial list of small local growers that we work with in the Bay area. Some of them sell through our distribution center and some sell directly to our stores.

There are many more growers than this in the total mix, but products from these small- scale growers can be relied on to be present on the sales floor for most of the summer. With the exception of Coke Farm, all these growers deal directly with the regional buyers and/or store buyers.

  • Pinnacle Ranch (Phil Foster/Pinnacle, Hollister CA - row crop, onions)
  • Capay Fruits and Vegetables (Capay, CA - heirloom tomatoes)
  • Ryan O'Shannon Farm (Mike McDowell, Petaluma, CA - strawberries, tomatoes)
  • Swanton Berry Farm (Jim Cochran, Davenport CA - strawberries)
  • Blue Moon Organic (Greg Rawlings Aptos CA - strawberries)
  • Full Belly Farm, Guinda, CA - heirloom tomatoes, melons)
  • Hungry Hollow (Jim Durst, Esparto, CA - heirloom tomatoes, melons)
  • Wooley Farm (Brad Johnson, Live Oak, CA - melons, eggplant, squash, tomatoes)
  • Goldbud (Ron Mansfield, Placerville, CA - peaches)
  • Alterra Organics (Mike Milovina Mendocino County - Mendocino blueberries (awesome!)
  • T+D Willey (Madera, CA - summer vegetables, tomatoes, row crop)
  • Wilgenburg Greenhouse (Hans Wilgenburg/ Fresno CA - tomatoes, cukes)
  • Lone Willow Ranch (John Texiera/ - heirloom tomatoes)
  • Lagier Ranch (John Lagier, Escalon - grapes, apricots, paige mandarin, boysenberries)
  • G+S Farm, (Glen Stonebarger/Brentwood, CA - corn, pluots)
  • Happy Boy (Freedom, CA - specialty veg, heirloom tomatoes)
  • Two Dog Farm (Mark and Libby Barytle , Davenport CA - dry farmed tomatoes)
  • Sadies Farm (JP McDaniel, Aptos CA - tomatoes)
  • Molino Creek (Davenport CA - dry farmed tomatoes)
  • Coke Farm (Aromas CA)

Growers who sell primarily to the distribution center:

  • Jim Durst - Hungry Hollow
  • Brad Johnson - Wooley Farm
  • Dinesse Willey - T+D Willey
  • Phil Foster - Pinnacle Ranch
  • Hans Wilgenberg - Wilgenberg Greenhouse
  • Glenn Stonbarger - G+S Farm
  • Capay Fruits and Veg
  • Ron Mansfield - Goldbud
  • John Texiera - Lone Willow Ranch (was store direct last year, but has requested to be through the DC this year.)
  • John Lagier - Lagier Ranch
  • Coke Farm (via WFP)
  • Alterra Organics

Growers who are primarily direct to stores:

  • Full Belly
  • Swanton Berry Farm
  • Ryan O'Shannon
  • Happy Boy
  • Frog Hollow
  • Blue Moon Organics
  • Knoll
  • 2 Dog Farm
  • Sadies Farm
  • Molino Creek Collective

Whole Foods Market would like to try working again with any of the Bay Area farmers you know who are unhappy with Whole Foods Market and no longer sell to us. Please encourage them to contact our Northern California and Pacific Northwest Produce Director, Karen Christensen, at 415-307-5337 about selling directly into our stores again. You've also got my e-mail address. Please encourage those farmers to contact me directly via e-mail (but don't give my e-mail address out to anyone else, please) if they don't want to talk to Karen. I want to talk to them. Thanks.

The issues in pastured meat and milk are similar in some ways, different in others. I was pleased to hear you speak of the importance of grass in both beef and milk production, and applaud your efforts to push the organic dairy industry to make grazing mandatory and reject the organic feedlot model. The story in beef is more complicated. I recognize the economic advantages of sourcing grass-fed beef from overseas; it is a commodity in New Zealand while still an artisanal product here. Yet Whole Foods' commitment to developing an American grass-fed meat industry would have such a profound impact, both on the environment and the welfare of the animals, that I would urge you to take a broader view of the matter. I am not, contrary to what you might think, an absolutist on local food. I recognize that there are times and cases when supporting local agriculture in other countries is the best way to go; Slow Food calls it "virtuous globalization" when the power of a global market can be used to defend an endangered local food or food culture. But that's not what's happening in the case of grass-fed beef.
To build a viable grass-fed beef industry in America would do so much for the land -not just remove the insult of chemicals and ruinous commodity crop production, but also actually restore the land to health. It would also do wonders for the health and happiness of millions of America cattle that now live in misery on feedlots, and encourage farmers to convert cropland back to grassland. I also believe that, by organizing a national supply chain based around regional differences in the season that grass-fed meat should ideally be harvested, Whole Foods could develop a 12-month national supply of fresh, high-quality domestic grass-fed meat. True, the meat would not always be local, but the local effect, as the source of it shifted from one region to another over the course of the year, would be profound. Whole Foods has the power and know-how to do things in this area no one else can do.

Michael, we are in complete agreement here. Whole Foods Market could and should do more to support local animal production. We are going to. More on what we are exactly going to do at the end of the letter.

As you point out several times in your letter, Whole Foods' freedom of action is constrained by the desires of its consumers, who want asparagus in January, fresh berries all year long, convenience foods, etc. I appreciate that you "don't try to channel our customers into adopting any particular dietary regime." And yet your stores - with their extensive information, signage, and well-informed counter help – are clearly in the business of educating people. You are selling information and stories as well as food, which is to say, you have set yourself the mission of leading, not just following, the consumer. Any retailer can treat the consumer as a dumb beast that wants what we wants when we wants it – appealing to the narrowest conception of our self-interest. Such an approach to the consumer has done much to create the debased industrial food chain we now have - the "pile it high and sell it cheap" philosophy that ramifies up and down the food chain, degrading the land, emiserating the animals, and making us fat and sick. But as Whole Foods recognized before many others did, there is another consumer being born out there, one who takes a broader view of his interests, understands that spending more on higher-quality food is worth it on so many levels, and who treats his food purchases as a kind of vote for a better world. You have helped to create that new consumer, educating him about organics and persuading him to spend more for better food-something we will have to do if the food system is ever to be put on a truly sustainable footing.
In the same way we now need (as you pointed out in our meeting) to raise the bar again on American agriculture, we need to raise it on the American eater too, teaching him about the satisfactions (and nutritional benefits) of eating in season, from his locality, and from a food chain based on grass rather than corn. I think we agree that this is where the "reformation" now is headed; you are in a position to lead rather than to follow it there. To do so is also, I daresay, in your company's self-interest: as competitors like Wal-Mart and Safeway move into selling industrial organic food, Whole Foods can distinguish itself by moving to the next stage, doing things they can't possibly do. "Local" surely is one of those things: and your buyers already know exactly how to do it. All Wal-Mart knows is how to source industrial organic food from China.

You are absolutely right here, Michael, and your message is very inspirational. Thank you.

After spending time with you and reading your letter, I've wondered if perhaps I did, as you imply in your letter, present a unfair caricature of Whole Foods in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," suggesting a store where organic, local and artisanal food is just window dressing to help sell a much more ordinary industrial product. Indeed, nothing would please me more than to conclude I owe you and the company an apology. I'm not quite there yet. But I sincerely hope you will prove my portrait of Whole Foods wrong, that the company has not thrown its lot in with the industrialization, globalization and dilution of organic agriculture, but rather stands for something better. For my own part, I stand ready to write that apology, and look forward to doing it.

Michael I'm not looking for an apology from you. Who cares about that? That's just ego stuff. Just as you are trying to "wake me up" to the importance of local food, I'm trying to "wake you up" to the fundamental integrity of Whole Foods Market and our company commitment to our core value of "selling the highest quality natural and organic foods available." While I don't share your fear of globalization of the food supply, I do share your commitment toward helping promote local foods. I will say, however, that buying only local foods may be good for local farmers, but it can also be devastating to poor farmers all over the world who need to sell their products to the developed world to help lift themselves out of poverty. A strictly local foods philosophy is not a very compassionate philosophy. As Singer and Mason write in their new book, "keep your dollars circulating in your own community is not an ethical principle at all. To adhere to a principle of 'buy locally,' irrespective of the consequences for others, is a kind of community-based selfishness" (Singer and Mason p. 141). Whole Foods Market intends to continue to buy quality natural and organic foods from around the world, because our customers want us to and because doing so helps support some of the poorest economies in the world. You may not have liked those organic asparagus from Argentina very much, but Argentina is not a wealthy country (ranking only #65 in GNI per capita at $3,720 versus $41,400 in the USA-source: The World Bank, 2004) and helping their farmers to sell organic foods is very beneficial to them. Do you not feel any ethical obligation to help poor people around the world? What better way to help them, than to be willing to buy their agricultural products? Argentina isn't able to sell us automobiles or jet planes or computers, but one thing they can sell us is organic asparagus. If we don't buy their organic asparagus then how are they going to be able to afford to buy iPods from Apple, computers from Dell, or books from Michael Pollan? (You aren't just restricting your books for sale only locally in Berkeley are you? Why not? After all, lot's of fossil fuel gets used distributing books across the U.S. and the world.)

Organic farming is spreading rapidly all over the developing world and it is doing so primarily because there is a huge U.S. market that wasn't there before Whole Foods Market's successful growth helped create it. Organic farming is very, very good to the small poor farmer in these countries for several reasons:

  • Over-population and the consequential over-working of the small farms have really depleted the soil, and organic farming is beginning to help bring that soil back to health. As we both know, the health of the soil is essential to long-term sustainability of every farm.
  • Organic foods pay much better to developing world farmers than conventional farming does, with premiums as great as 100% for growing organically. These higher prices for organic foods are currently helping raise the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of poor farmers around the world. If organic continues to grow and spread, then eventually it will help millions of developing world farmers lift themselves out of poverty.
  • Small farmer poisoning due to pesticide applications is a very big problem all over the developing world; the U.S. organic foods demand has saved countless farmers from illness or death due to pesticide poisoning. Sickness and the death of the (mostly male) developing world farmer is a leading cause of poverty.

Michael, I agree that Whole Foods Market could and should do more to promote local agriculture, while simultaneously supporting global organic foods. We have a responsibility to take a leadership role to promote more local agriculture. This has really become clear to me the last couple of years as we've been developing our animal compassionate standards. We haven't found very many of our existing animal food suppliers really willing to convert over to more animal compassionate methods. We've come to realize that we are going to have to create an alternative animal compassionate system from the ground up and we're going to need to do it on a local basis market by market all across the United States.

In my first paragraph of this letter I promised to tell you about some exciting new initiatives that Whole Foods Market is launching. So here goes:

  1. We've hired our first animal compassionate field buyer, Andrew Gunther, who is going to work exclusively on developing sources of animal products that meet our new strict animal compassionate standards. Andrew is well qualified for this post as he has owned and managed a very successful organic farm in the U.K. and has pioneered animal compassionate methods on his farm for chickens, ducks, turkeys, beef cattle, and pigs. Andrew is a knowledgeable and passionate man concerning animal welfare. We're lucky to have him working with us. All of Andrew's initial animal compassionate suppliers will be relatively small in scale. If you check out our animal compassionate standards you will see that the standards have specific provisions requiring access to pasture (going beyond the current organic standards regarding pasture). Pasture is not optional in these standards but is one of the core values. If you know of any animal compassionate farmers (including 100% grass farmers) interested in selling to Whole Foods Market, please have them contact Andrew at
  2. Whole Foods Market is changing the job responsibilities of our Regional Buyers to focus more on sourcing local products for their stores.
  3. We have set up an annual budget of $10 million to promote local agriculture (especially animal agriculture) wherever we have stores through long-term loans at low rates of interest. Select Regional and Store Buyers will be empowered to extend these loans to help support smaller scale agricultural entrepreneurs. This money will be used to help local producers of grass fed beef, goat milk dairies, organic pasture based eggs, animal compassionate dairy cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs, etc. Some of the money will also be used to help support local vegetable farmers as well. It is Whole Foods Market's intention to help finance local agriculture all over the United States. We are going to "walk our talk" with financial support for local, small scale agriculture. We are inspired by the initial success of our Whole Planet Foundation's work with micro-credit loans in developing world communities that we trade with. We see that these small loans are making a huge difference in the lives of poor people in Guatemala and Costa Rica (with new loan projects being set up in India and Honduras in 2007-and eventually around the "whole planet"). We intend to do a similar thing to support local agriculture wherever we have stores. We believe this financial assistance of $10 million per year can make a very significant difference in helping local agriculture grow and flourish across the United States and in parts of Canada and the U.K. as well. Each year we will make an additional $10 million available for loans. Also as the loans are paid back, we will recycle the returned capital back into additional loans. Over time this will result in a very positive and strong multiplier effect on local agriculture.
  4. Whole Foods Market is committed to supporting local farmers markets across the United States (and also in Canada and the U.K.). Beginning soon, many of our markets where we have stand-alone stores (no other retailers sharing our parking lots) will close off major sections of the parking lots on Sunday to provide a place for local farmers to sell their products directly to customers. Whenever possible we will work in cooperation with any existing farmers markets. In most cases, our stores have excellent store locations and heavy customer traffic to help these farmers markets to successfully flourish. This support of local farmers markets is consistent with our stakeholder philosophy since it directly benefits five of our six major stakeholders-customers, team members, suppliers, community, and environment. Also, our shareholders will benefit directly if store traffic increases enough to offset the amount of sales lost to the local farmers, and they will definitely benefit indirectly through increased customer and community goodwill.
  5. Our Regional and Store Marketing Teams are now directly responsible for communicating and educating our customers about locally produced products. Some of our Marketers are already doing this, but company-wide we aren't doing nearly enough to tell the stories of our local producers. This is going to seriously improve over the next 12 to 24 months.
I also look forward to continuing this dialog, and to following Whole Foods progress. Here's to the "reformation"!
Yours very truly,
Michael Pollan

I've enjoyed our dialog Michael. "Viva le Revolution!" Take care.

John Mackey

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Pam M., Milwaukee WI says …

I’ve read Michael Pollan’s book and I’ve followed this thread over the past month. The book has changed my life, both personally and professionally, and I feel compelled to continue to make better choices for myself and for the business I run – when it comes to local food. You see, I’ve worked the past 25 years in the natural products industry – not for Whole Foods but for one of those “fringe” co-ops Mr. Mackey referred to (“The simple truth is that the organic foods movement was largely a fringe movement with the number of adherents numbering only in the thousands before Whole Foods Market came into existence”.) Financially speaking, I understand Mr. Mackey’s response in that few businesses are even a close second to the volume of organic business Whole Foods conducts. However, with all due respect, I disagree with the organic movement having been “fringe” prior to WF existence. Whole Foods in the 1980’s was close to the same sales volume as my store at the time – along with hundreds of other independent stores across the country. After going public, WF excelled quickly by buying up many of those independent stores, who had worked for years to grow their market, contribute to their community, and increase awareness of organic foods. (They went willingly, of course.) Those independent supermarkets, and co-ops, grew the market for organics. Whole Foods was able to quickly grasp their market potential from the sales volume those independent stores and co-ops had already produced in cities across the country. Consider the market potential in my town – where WF will open thanks to the multi-millions of dollars in natural and organic sales that have come from my store and other local independents. I believe WF has done a lot for our industry – their exposure alone has really helped to grow the natural and organic market for all the rest of us. And while acquisitions and public stock have contributed to the financial success of the corporation, it seems to me to be quite self-serving to say that we wouldn’t have an organic industry without WF. Consider the fact that today there are markets that WF will never consider, because they don’t make sense to them financially. (Lower population density, lower household income, rural communities.) So instead of a WF, those communities have or are starting up a new a co-op to provide them not only with local and organic products, but real ownership of the business and a sense of community that can’t be replicated. To me, that's a value that all the millions a publicly-traded company could afford, cannot buy at any price.

robert says …

off-thread, but related: Dear Mr. Mackey: So much is at stake as goes the future of capitalism and the role of corporations. I am deeply curious to know the semantic and real differences between your views and those of someone like David Korten, and where his views and yours converge in common purpose. At a Brian Johnson blog entry at Zaadz, I suggest a pow-wow between you and Dr. Korten, presumptively inviting you both to a sit-down at Ken Wilber's loft in late October, as Dr. Korten is scheduled to be in Boulder then to discuss his latest book. Whether or not such a sit-down is possible, a conversation between you two is one I'd very much love to hear. Thank you so much for your stewardship of the organic movement and your contributions to transforming the role of corporations. Sincerely, Robert Lyons

Chuck Learned says …

Mr Mackey, I would like to offer an idea that relates to your continued desire to source food from distant shores. I understand your point regarding supporting small poor farmers overseas. This as you know carries the embodied energy of transport, which in turn plays a role in increasing the temperature of our earth's atmosphere. Given that we must all account for our eco-footprint in this matter, I am suggesting that Whole foods become a leader in developing a carbon offset plan for the carbon footprint of food travel. This plan should involve a shared responsibility with the consumer who purchases the product. Perhaps you could offer a consumer carbon offset partnership. It is possible to calculate the carbon footprint and in turn bring it to the level of a single item, this items footprint could be available to the consumer who in turn could pay for half of the footprint with Whole Foods matching it, as one possibility. This consumer match could be tallied at the checkout informing the consumer of the amount with an invitation for them to pay this carbon chip with the knowledge it will be matched. One final note, to increase both the trust and consumer commitment to the carbon footprint remediation, allow the consumers utilizing the internet, surveys, etc complete authority over the how this pool of money is utilized. Let the consumers bring forth proposals, prioritize and evaluate and give each consumer a vote who participates in the carbon offset chip program. Taking this issue on will bring only positives. The carbon footprint on a daily "consumable" must be accounted for, if we have any prayer of cooling down the big blue that we all love. As you know we have little time to turn this ship around. Chuck Learned Happy to help further if you wish.

Audie Alcorn says …

I spent years studying philosophy/ethics in academic settings that seemed divorced from any earthy groundedness; more years working for a government agency charged with environmental protection; and a couple of years running a small, not-for-profit, natural-foods co-op. And then there was the so-called real world. I used to wonder, "Must these worlds stay so separate? Can't ethical considerations; informed, passionate debate; and consideration for long-term environmental health be present in a (for-profit) business setting?" Thanks, John, for not simply asking yourself that same question, but for having the courage and energy to create the answer. I can scarely believe I'm actually reading such great stuff on a CEO's (full disclosure, *my* CEO's) blog, not least of all for all the great comments from customers, supporters and detractors, and other team members (and the idea of bringing Mackey and Ken Wilber together is a truly intriguing one -- oh, to be a fly on the wall if that meeting ever takes place!). Keep up the great work, and the continued willingness to evolve.

Aloysius Jones says …

It is more than fair not to trust the corporation. There is no reason to expect anything from it, however. We most certainly need people like Michael Pollan to raise these kind of questions, and to seriously scrutinize the actions of businesses. Mackey’s points are more than valid, and it would seem fair to have involved WFM in their defense. I am pleased that they both took the time to have a real discourse; this proves their genuine interest in the matter at hand, even if they differ. As an employee of Whole Foods Market, I believe I can give further insight. Most corporations surely started out with noble intentions. “Get better product to more people at an affordable price.” The problem with visionaries is that they often can only extend their vision to those who are in direct contact with them and usually only at the moment of direct contact. The visionary can have the whole room nodding their heads in agreement, and as soon as he takes leave suddenly they are all scratching their heads. Even the greatest visionaries of human history have seen their teachings fall prey to this. Look at the major religions of the world. When Jesus or Buddha was here, there was unity among their followers (for the most part), everyone was in agreement united and ready to do what had to be done. As soon as each left this earth, suddenly everything was open to interpretation and the list of those who think they understand the vision best is still growing. Certainly if Jesus and Buddha can have their vision divided like this, certainly we can hardly think of the corporation as an exception. A corporation is its own entity; it belongs not, to the visionary. It has but one purpose and that is to make money. It accomplishes this goal best by convincing people to invest. The best means of doing that is record-breaking returns. It doesn’t hurt, however, to also show the potential investor just how humanitarian you (the corporation) are, or to share your vision. However, because of its goal, it will only adhere to the original vision as long as it yields the proper return. I truly appreciate John Mackey’s vision, and I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak. It is one of the reasons that I decided to work for WFM. But, I assure you even as high up as Regional Presidents and as low as your Team Member starting out at $8.50/hr there are few that see that vision, therefore they can not properly act upon it. Even after hearing him speak, I was the only one perhaps two if we stretch it, out of a group of seven who went together, who really listened and understood. Corporations can be expected to make money, not change the world and in the end not even change how we do business, or the industry for any better. Change is a long process and often what can seem progressive turns out to be nothing more than the same old, just wrapped in new packaging featuring all recycled materials and zero calories. We will have to wait and see if Whole Foods Market can rise above that expectation.

Kevin Knox says …

Thanks for the great forum. Pollan's book is a life-changing event, and as always Mr. Mackey your passion, honesty and intelligence are an inspiration. Missing in much of the discussion, but certainly not in Pollan or his book nor in the preferences of many who shop WF, are issues of FLAVOR and FRESHNESS. Industrial organic products may address purity concerns, but for food lovers purity is not the only issue. When we look to the culinary traditions of France and Italy, for example, or to to American inspirations from those cultures (Chez Panisse, Slow Food, Chef's Collaborative, etc.) we see that the shortest possible time and distance transit from farm to table is critical to good flavor. Have a meal at any great restaurant here or in Europe and the vegetables will have been picked within a day or so, the fruit will be what is in season, and other ingredients largely sourced locally and regionally from farmers with a personal relationship to the chef. This is where quality comes from. It would be great to define "local" and "artisinal" more precisely. Rather than ducking those issues, WF could ask Slow Food, for example, to help them do so. In the culinary worlds of (to take the leading examples) France, Italy and Spain more than a few cooks mean "grown within my sight," but at the very least it means within one's region (and bear in mind these countries are about the size of a large American state). I don't want to be excessively Euro-centric here, as the same sensitivity to ripeness and freshness exist in every established culinary tradition, from Mexico to India to Thailand. So the issues Pollan raises about WF using fossil fuels to fly produce from distant lands are culinary as well as ethical. Eating locally and seasonally is, for most of the world, not even a choice, and the completely unseasonal relationship to food promoted by flying in stuff out of season from all over the planet is based on the same sort of unsustainable petrochemically-fueled addictions as the industrial corn Pollan discusses early in the book. The argument that such practices are justified because they help poor farmers in those countries is transparently self-serving. There are lots of ways to help people in the third world besides encouraging them to cultivate crops for wealthy, pesticide-phobic white people in the first world to consume (the latter being a rather obvious instance of cultural and culinary colonialism and imperialism). Anyone who's every tasted corn the day it was picked has had a crash course in the fact that, as M.F.K. Fisher put it, "it's the difference between fresh and very fresh that makes all the difference." Beyond the flavor and pleasure, this is also, as was mentioned in a previous post, an issue of nutrients and of vitality (prana in the Ayurvedic system, chi in Chinese medicine). Local fresh foods have this, industrial ones, organic or otherwise, do not. As Wal Mart and mainstream supermarkets enter the world of shelf stable industrial organics it seems to me there's an opportunity as well as quite possibly a business imperative for WF to rediscover freshness and flavor as priorities. In produce this means seasonal, local and fresh first, then (certified) organic. It means not prewrapping cheeses that need to be cut to order, no matter how much labor it saves you. It means roasting your coffee locally and selling it within 7 days, not putting it in vacuum bags and prestaling it in distribution centers. There are of course many other examples, but these are a few obvious places to start. Thanks again for your commitment to continual improvement of an already great company!

Ian says …

Though I find the intellectual discussion of food interesting and something that I value, what I want to know how this is helping the stakeholders of the whole foods organization? The stock just fell over $6, stock options to rank and file have been eliminated - how is the company going to keep the talent that provides and cares for this food interested and wanting to not want to work at competing stores that do not have the same value sets?

Brendan says …

Mr. Mackey, I am in the process of reading Mr. Pollan's book and have already finished the Supermarket Pastoral section of the book. Let me explain the experience I had recently after starting to read this book. After reading about the industrial food chain and how corn has become our staple food without actually being our staple food, my girlfriend and I discussed ways to "avoid the industrial food chain." And to limit our intake of corn as much as possible to occasionally eating actual corn. Not being even close to well off financially, we realized that we could get our produce from a lovely local grocer whose only products were locally grown organic produce at very, very reasonable prices. Lovely, we thought. But what about meat, where might we find grass fed beef? Whole Foods, we thought, was our answer. It would be more expensive, but - in moderation - doable. But my experience at Whole Foods was confusing and disheartening, to say the least. As Mr. Pollan points out, your store does a very good job telling a story... but not the whole story and certainly not enough to satisfy individuals who actually want to know what they are eating. A pamphlet I read in your store indicated that the beef you sold came from cows that were pasture fed for 2/3's of their life. Well, which 2/3's? And what were they fed for the remaining 1/3? Did I even want to know? Well, yes... yes, I did. It was only after this experience that I got to the Supermarket Pastoral section. It made me laugh, actually. I am glad that you felt the need to defend the practices of Whole Foods against the claims made by Mr. Pollan. Personally, I agree with his methods because his experience was my experience. And what is the result? You have posted on this blog - which I would never have even looked at if not for Mr. Pollan's book - what you are endeavoring to do in order to better Whole Foods relationship with local farmers. But, I never would have known about them by walking into your stores. I never would've known it was even a concern. I am not a journalist, I am a customer. I believe that the transparency that Mr. Pollan discusses and that you, in your most recent response to him, have just exhibited are very important steps. Why do I need to read a book that criticizes your company in order to - a couple of steps of research down the line - find out that you recognize the weaknesses in the organic food system and that you are doing what you can to make improvements? Why can't I go into Whole Foods to find this out? Do your employees know how to deal with customers when it comes to providing answers to what's in the food sold at your store? Whole Foods is not Wal-Mart... granted. And I am not a Wal-Mart customer. I am doing what I can to educate myself about what I eat and where I get it. The more transparency you can provide, the better I can educate myself. You seem to be interested in doing that, for which you and your company are to be commended. I appreciate the dialog. Thank you. Your customer, Brendan

Rob Rushin says …

Hello All - I've just recently stumbled across this blog, and I find the exchange here really fascinating and encouraging. So many people sincerely searching for a way to live and be that is conscious and honorable -- this inspires hope. But I look at this comment by Aloysius Jones above and recognize a persistent problem: "But, I assure you even as high up as Regional Presidents and as low as your Team Member starting out at $8.50/hr there are few that see that vision, therefore they can not properly act upon it. Even after hearing him speak, I was the only one perhaps two if we stretch it, out of a group of seven who went together, who really listened and understood." It is this fundamental inability (or lack of will) in most people to stretch themselves to hear ideas that are out of their normal mode of thought. People need to not only gain exposure to new ideas, people need to learn a new way of learning and listening. I find this of deep interest as this is my area of training expertise. Our work is based on the idea that our inability to hear others' viewpoints -- and hence to expand our consciousness to incorporate even the possibility of their validity -- is connected to ingrained patterns of physical and emotional behavior. Further, these two types of behaviors are in fact intertwined in a way that is largely invisible within ourselves, while often easily seen in others. Some of the comments in this thread are notable in their detailed inventory of other people's motives. But few seem to recognize their own motivations and the way they play out in the exchange. Certainly, Mr Pollan has expended a great deal of time and thought on his book and its underlying idea set. And clearly Mr Mackey has invested his life in the philosophies and executions that have made Whole Foods so successsful. Yet they each approach the debate as though the other has an agenda, while the role of their own motivations are either transparent or trivial. And in this, the dance-around continues. I applaud Mr Mackey's willingness to undertake this blog and engage his critics in public view. But I ask Mr Mackey this: Are you confident that your philosophy and values are in fact well-communicated and understood by the full depth of the WFM team? Is it possible, despite your best efforts to communicate these ideas, that your chain of command might listen-but-not-hear? If there is wavering confidence is answering "Yes" to these questions, what steps can WFM take to enable your employees to bring their listening consciousness to new level of effectiveness?

Jessica says …

John, Just gotta ask. Why, if "buyers are allowed to buy direct" was your floral buyer in Seattle REQUIRED to buy tulips from California when those tulips actually came from Washington to begin with? Don't you think this is misleading to the consumer, who will be obviously unaware of the lengths their "local" product has traveled to get to them? You see John, you're stores and your "leaders" are all very concerned with telling you what you want to hear. The reality is, unfortunately, very different from the idea. You yourself stated that at least some of your "leaders" aren't in the yellow MEME. It's true and unfortunate as they can't and don't lead your company in the way you intend. They can however spend their time chaperoning your visits to their stores to insure you don't hear from the "team members" what's really going on…. You might consider traveling unannounced.

Renae P says …

Rob, I would like to answer your questions about the communication and education of WFM team members. I work at the Omaha, Nebraska WFM. (Yes, there really is a WFM in Nebraska - a big one, too!) My title is In Store Educator. My entire focus for all 40 hours of my work week is team member education. We have a very aggressive education curriculum, including everything from OSHA basics to in-depth discussions of our animal compassionate standards. Our store opened in September of last year, and since that time we have continuously offered development courses to our team members. As of today, the total attendance in these courses for our store sits at 1917. That's a lot of learning! WFM also offers self-paced intranet modules on topics such as our quality standards and organics. In fact, there is an entire team at our headquarters in Austin dedicated to nothing but the design of curriculum for the education of team members. Coming from the field of "real" education (I was previously a high school English teacher)I have to say I've never seen an entity more passionate about the training and success of its employees. It is truly refreshing to be a part of such a compassionate company! In short, Rob, I can assure you first-hand that if there are team members in this company who are not informed about WFM policies or the issues in our industry it is certainly not for a lack of dedication on the part of WFM leadership! Cheers!

Morton says …

John Mackey is overreacting. The Omnivore's Dillema is not about Whole Foods, in fact the name "Whole Foods" appears on about 16 pages of the 400+ page book. Pollan's assesment of "Industrial Organic" food production is ambivalent. It is positive as well as negative, and more revealing than criticial. Mackey's letters are empty rhetoric. Though they are almost unreadably long, he fails to answer Pollan's central question: what percentage of Whole Foods TOTAL SALES are from products supplied by local, artisinal food producers. Instead Mackey confuses the reader by focusing on the percentage breakdown of their vendors. To clarify by a purely speculative example: Whole Foods sells 20 types of nut butter, 19 are from artisinal, family nut butter producers, one is from an industrial organic company. As Mackey is quick to point out: 95% of their nut butter suppliers are artisinal family farms. But if 60% of nut butter sales go to the low priced, industrial organic nut butters than that 95% figure is meaningless. Pollan's primary criticisms of the Industrial Organic are not centered on Whole Foods, but on some of their most important suppliers: Petaluma Poultry, Earthbound Farms and Cascadian Farms. Mackay criticizes Pollan for not contacting Whole Foods, but he had plenty of interaction with these three suppliers, who represent a significant percentage of Whole Food's sales. Two facts that sum up his argument: -Organic "Rosie" Free Range chickens grown by Petaluma Poultry never set foot outside. -It takes 60 calories of energy to bring one calorie of Earthbound Farms organic mixed greens to the plate of a diner in Manhattan. Pollan's conclusion regarding industrial organics is mixed. He points out that the growth of organic mega-farms such as Earthbound represent growth in pesticide and herbicide free land (although petroleum consumption is comparable to conventional agriculture). Certainly movements towards more humane animal husbandry are positive. But Pollan's point is that most consumers believe that the products sold at Whole Foods are far more sustainable, artisinal, healthy and humane than they actually are (Pollan refrains from really delving into the issue of pseudo-healthy, organic junk food such as TVP and processed soy prducts). Whole Foods projects an image that, though not technically false, is certainly misleading. I heard gasps from the audience at my local book store in Berkeley when Pollan spoke of the conditions of the Organic Rosie Chicken (a staple at NorCal Whole Foods markets) and these were from people who consider themselves informed and progressive thinking eaters. I am thrilled with the growth of Industrial Organic agriculture. Anything that moves away from the current, highly unsustainable model is a good thing. Wal-Mart is selling organic? Fantastic! But I have no delusions about Industrial Organic food. It is still far removed from an ideal of artisinal, local farmers, ranchers and food processers. Pollan's intent is to make that distinction clear to the consumer, and Mackey's intent is to obscure that distinction.

John Mackey says …

People keep making the same criticism about my not answering Michael Pollan's question about the actual percentage of local produce sold in our stores. I answered this question on this board back on July 19. I'll repeat the answer here again: "We don't know the exact percentage of local produce we sell in our stores. Produce that is bought locally doesn't have the same tracking mechanisms established that nationally sourced produce does. We know how many produce suppliers we have that are local, but we don't know exactly how much we are selling from each one because that information doesn't roll up. We don't have the "categories" currently established to track local versus national or global. This is an Information Systems challenge that we are working to correct." A few other answers to questions: Have I met with Ken Wilber? Yes. Ken and I have had very interesting discussions 4 times now--3 in person and 1 over the phone. One of the discussions was recorded and can be listened to in 2 parts at: I am a great admirer of Ken Wilber's thinking and view him as one of the greatest living philosophers in the world. I have recently made a significant financial contribution to the Integral Institute and in July was asked to join their Board of Directors and I accepted this invitation. To Clement Roberts. Thanks for your suggestion about developing animal compassionate standards for farmed fish. I agree with you and we plan on doing this. However, dairy cows and broiler chickens are ahead of them in the queue. To all the various defenders of consumer co-ops on this blog--I have nothing against consumer co-ops. I used to belong to 2 co-ops in Austin before I began Whole Foods. I wish consumer food co-ops nothing but the best and hope they flourish. I will say, however, that I don't believe consumer food co-ops are ethically superior to corporations simply because they are owned by their customers or preach a philosophy of "food for people, not for profit". Whatever the organizational form of a business--whether it is owned by customers, employees, investors, suppliers or the government--all businesses ultimately must create value for their various constituencies to flourish over the long run. These constituencies include their customers, employees, investors, suppliers, community, and the environment. In my opinion, food co-ops have never realized their great potential in the world because they've long believed that profits were somehow or another "evil" or simply based on "greed". This philosophy prevented the hundreds of food co-ops across the country from accumulating the necessary capital required to grow and expand their businesses to meet the rising demand for their products. Investor co-ops such as Whole Foods (yes we are also a form of co-operative as well--one owned and controlled by the financial investors) have flourished because we recognized the absolute necessity of profits which we have used to benefit all of our various stakeholders. To Chuck Learned: Excellent suggestion about the "carbon footprint". We'll see if we can work towards such a goal over the next several years. Regarding local food: As I've stated in my blog, Whole Foods has begun a number of initiatives to increase the amount of local food sold in our stores. However, I find the petro-chemical argument not very convincing. We live in an increasingly integrated world economy. A huge number of things in our lives come from around the world--our clothing, many of our automobiles do and all of our automobiles have parts sourced from other countries, most of our electronics such as iPods, cell phones, and computers (including most of the computers (or most of their parts) used by participants to complain about imported foods. When Michael Pollan was promoting his book around the country he wasn't walking or riding a bicycle to go to New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and dozens of other locations. No, Michael was using plenty of fossil fuel to jet around the country to make the argument that we shouldn't use so much fossil fuel in food production. I find that a bit ironic, even if no one else does. The bottom-line is that Whole Foods is going to give strong support to local foods because they will be fresher, more nutritious, will likely taste better, and because hundreds of thousands of our customers want us to. We will also continue to import foods from all over the world because millions of our customers want us to. It is also a simple fact that buying agricultural products from the developing world helps the developing world economically. If we don't buy from what the developing world has to sell, which is primarily agricultural products, then we aren't going to be helping those billions of poor people in the world to lift themselves out of poverty. Peter Singer's argument about "community based selfishness" is a valid argument in my opinion. To Brendan--sorry that you feel like Whole Foods isn't transparent enough or doing enough to educate customers. Thanks for the feedback. We'll try to do better in the future. To Kevin Knox (are you the Kevin Knox who was once our brilliantly talented Coffee Buyer/Roaster at Allegro? Hope you are doing well, Kevin.): I agree with several of your suggestions, Kevin. I agree with the Slow Food Movement and the importance of artisanal fresh foods in terms of quality, freshness and nutritional value. Whole Foods is already doing quite a bit to maximize freshness whenever possible and we are rapidly evolving to do even more in this regard. Many of our stores roast green coffee beans every day to maximize their freshness and many of our stores do cut cheeses to order (and all of them will do this if you request a special cut). It is important to realize, however, that other customers prefer the convenience of pre-cut cheeses, pre-bagged coffee, and already cooked foods. Not everyone who shops at our stores is a "foodie" or is necessarily passionate about food. We have millions of customers and their needs and desires are infinitely diverse. To Morton: Whole Foods is hard at work developing alternative suppliers that will produce animal compassionate products for our stores. Pollan's criticisms regarding the way chickens are treated even on organic farms is substantially correct. It is appalling! I am personally a (near) vegan (I eat eggs from my own 30 chickens). Much of the $10 million in annual loans we are going to make to local producers will be to produce local animal products which will meet our rigorous animal compassionate standards. We are working on this as fast as we are able to right now. It is important to understand, however, that Whole Foods Market is just a retailer--we don't grow the foods or raise the animals. We sell the highest quality natural and organic foods available--that is Core Value #1. I think it is more than a little unfair to blame Whole Foods for the practices of an entire animal factory farm food production system which we didn't create and certainly don't endorse. It is only very recently that Whole Foods has grown large enough and wealthy enough to begin to change this horrible system. However, it will take us a few years to find and fund the entrepreneurs to lead this revolution across the nation and to get animal compassionate product into our stores in quantity. One final question to Morton and the many other critics of Whole Foods out there: who is doing more than we are to raise the quality of food in our society? No, we aren't perfect. We have made many mistakes. However, we are learning and we are evolving very rapidly. Our stores continue to rapidly improve and our Team Members remain committed to our larger mission. Watch what we do over the next few years. We have barely gotten started.

Alicia says …

Excellent dialog. I hope more and more people "wake up" and join in the discussion. Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Rob Rushin says …

To Renae P - Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my post. I do not question for a moment that WFM is committed to transmitting its core values and mission to its team members. The very existence of this blog and the efforts Mr. Mackey takes to communicate and refine his message is clear indication of the value placed on this aspect of the WFM performance. And my several friends who work at WFM are effusive in their praise for the training and overall work environment. My point is this...oft-times the message is communicated, then re-imparted, then emphasized, then told again. Yet, if the people on the receiving end do not know how to hear, it really is irrelevant how often or well the message is sent. So, to my question again...what does WFM do to empower its team members to really hear and internalize the message? My company is not the only one to focus on this fundamental issue, but it is certainly something that is close to my heart. I don't intend to discount your and your peers work in the training realm. Rather, I simply ask whether the fine training you offer is as effective as it could be. Very best wishes,

Renae P says …

Rob, Your question is one that strikes at the very core of effective education. It is one skill to convey information, but another beast entirely to teach people how to learn. It's the education equivalent of sucessfully nailing Jell-o to a tree - pretty freakin hard! As a company-wide team of trainers, I think we do well. There are several things working in our favor. First, every trainer I've met here is extremely intelligent and passionate about Whole Foods Market and its mission. What's more, we are provided with the tools and funds necessary to be excellent instructors and to entice Team Members to attend classes. This makes us much more effective, as well as attracts and retains excellent trainers. As excellent trainers are wont to do, we vary the instructional modalities to capture all learning styles, we do as much instruction in person as we can to convey enthusiasm, we offer courses on communication and listening skills, and sometimes we even entice Team Members with free food! :) As educators, we also have a very good set of circumstances in place to encourage our Team Members to internalize our message. No employee is going to embrace a company he or she feels is taking advantage of its position of power. Whole Foods makes a deliberate effort to value Team Members. We offer the highest pay, excellent benefits (that we all choose by democratic vote), generous paid time off, and we develop most leadership from within the company. The other side of this is that we also tend to attract Team Members who already share values with Whole Foods. Many of our Team Members cared passionately about natural foods or the environment before they came to work here, so they are predisposed to learning more. Do we have a success rate of 100 percent? Will every Team Member in every store care enough to learn about animal compassion or wind energy? No. The thing I love most about Whole Foods is the diversity of the Team Member base, which means there is a spectrum of knowledge and engagement. But do you know what? The person who punches in, does his job and punches out still has a job that pays well, benefits that he may not have had before and a company that cares about him. Maybe he will become interested after a while, and maybe not. But by doing right by him, Whole Foods has increased the quality of life for one more family. I think as a company and educator group, we do absolutely everything in our power to enable our team members to internalize the mission and values of the company. We can't make everyone care, but we have set up a culture to encourage it. The knowledge and customer service levels displayed in all 186 of our stores tells me that while our sucess rate is not 100 percent, it's pretty darn high! Cheers! Renae

Milo Popovich says …

I just finished reading this whole blog. It's so educational and informative...Thank you all for your input. In 1976 I had a wonderful Natural Food Store "Stoney Oak Farm" in Julian CA for several years (in the San Diego back country mountains). There I met many interesting people both local and tourist. I remember their praise and controversy about "organic, natural, raw, etc.). I appreciate WFM and the rest of you for keeping on. Our children and their children will benefit.

Dan Deans says …

The real "bottom line" is that Mackey and WFM have created a working business model that brings organic food, in quantity, to large urban populations. I've been eating organic since 1987, and back then it was extremely hard to feed one's family by shopping at small co-ops, health food stores, or local farmers. Everyone, except perhaps the financially very well-off, had to integrate non-organics into their diets. Because of WFM that has changed. I shop at WFM once or twice a week: I find the staff happy and helpful (b/c they love working for WFM), and also committed to a healthy alternative lifestyle. And don't think WFM hasn't had a huge impact on the grocery industry today. I started reading "Progressive Grocer," a trade magazine, last year--to decide if WFM stock was a good investment--and the mainstream grocery retailers (grudgingly) admit that Mackey has created a business model that the rest of them can't beat. Not that Wal-Mart isn't trying. Look at how these big players are trying to weaken organic standards so that they can undercut WFM by offering quasi-organic foods under the "organic" label, and you'll understand why Mackey is protective of WFM's business strategy. Can you imagine WFM trying to get the laws changed so they can sell synthetic pesticide laden food as organic? Hardly. Instead of complaining about WFM, Pollan needs to help combat this real assault on organics! Thanks to WFM my family is able to eat organic produce every day, and at affordable prices. And for those who think WFM's organic is expensive, try paying for medical bills caused by pesticides. Take the money you're saving and invest in WFM stock...I already have. Keep up the great work Mackey.

Tony M says …

We have been shopping at WF for years supplementing the meat, eggs, fruit, goats milk and poultry we grow ourselves. I have nothing to sell but will alert my farming and ranching friends of the policy changes at WF. I have volunteered to speak about Organics at my local WF store, many times, and took the opportunity to also speak with the employees. As a retired HR professional with 35 yrs experience in a Fortune 100 company, I know when I see good management practices and satisfied employees. I believe that the major force behind the success of WF is their management philosophy and practices. Anyone can pick apart a single event. I look at the bigger picture of what WF has done as well as what they are trying to do and I measure them by that standard. Years ago, we learned of a Japanese phrase called "Kaisan", which means continuous improvement. If you don't think that WF, especially after reading JM's responses, is not committed to continuous improvement, I must wonder. I appreciate John's responses and wish I had the chance during my career to support a manager like him. Tony M

Kelly M. McDaniel says …

"I believe that individual freedom in free markets when combined with property rights through rule of law and ethical democratic government results in societies that maximize prosperity and establish conditions that promote human happiness and well being." "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Nicely put, John, very nicely put...Kelly.

Simon Billenness says …

I was pleased to read John Mackey's commitment to working with third-party certification agencies. As John Mackey said on this blog: "Over the next few years Whole Foods intends to work closely with various certifying organizations such as Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance to make sure that eventually all our globally sourced products are 3rd party certified as to minimum price levels, acceptable labor standards, and environmental sustainability.” I know that Whole Foods has in the past been very skeptical of Fair Trade certification. However, I'm sure your good experience with organic certification has demonstrated its value in terms of greater scrutiny of production conditions and greater confidence by your customers. As a first step will you seek Fair Trade Certification for your own Allegro coffees?

John M says …

Hey John, Renae P. What an excellent way to exchange idea's and communicate! John, I commend you on this! How many other CEO's are doing this? I love what YOU and WHOLE FOODS MARKET stand for! I too have a PASSION for Organic's and all things as Natural as can be! I LOVE your stores and I have thoroughly researched your company - what a great environment to work in, especially for someone whom is dedicated to health and organics. Well, I would jump at the chance to work at one of your stores - Austin or San Antonio are the closest. I have awesome customer service skills and work great on teams, and as I mentioned earlier, I have a strong passion for Organics and staying Healthy - would you guys have a place for me there?? I know this is not the proper arena for looking for a career with Whole Foods, but I was so IMPRESSED after reading this blog(especially with what Renae P. wrote), I thought why not, sometimes you have to be Different and Think Outside the BOX!! And what Tony P. wrote about the practice of Kaizen and continous improvement, he is right on the money with WFM!! Smilezzz :-) John M.

Elise Brewin says …

Mr.Mackey, Thank you for Whole Foods, for providing this forum, and for your work to improve things. I am in the midst of reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and am somewhat amazed at the degree of defensiveness with which you read the part concerning Whole Foods. I am not finding heroes and villains, rather i am finally finding someone who isn't afraid to discuss the complexity of the situation, and the unusual position that Whole Foods finds itself in. I veiw the position of Whole Foods and similar "green market" enterprises as the tricky one of changing a system by taking part in it. In the continuum that is a paradigm shift (i know that seems contradictory, but we're living it), it is necessary to have many degrees of the change taking place. We need visionary extremists like Mr. Salatin as much as we need visionary extremists like Mr. Mackey, people demonstrating something new and different while others build a bridge for the rest of us from where we are (industrial conventional) through where we need to pass (industrial organic) to where we are going (hopefully somewhere w/ food...). To balance all of these visionaries, we need people like Mr. Pollan who can eloquently describe the scene as it looks from here, and present possible ways to push it in a positive direction. I am delighted that Mr. Pollan did not talk to you first Mr. Mackey, because people w/ a vision like yours are very infectious, and you need to hear how it looks to the thinking shopper in your store, not how it looks to the person who fully realizes your vision. I found the part about Whole Foods quite accurate - I love to shop there, but do so knowing that not all is as sustainable as you and I both want it to be. Part of the reason I spend some of my food dollars there is that it is apparent that Whole Foods is one of the few places that is grappling with these contradictions. All of this us/them and the idea that anyone could present a perfect picture in the current system is ridiculous, and that is precisely why it takes Mr. Pollan so many pages to describe attaining that perfection, even for one meal. I hardly think Mr. Pollan would have his "hero" suggest that NY city has to go, or that he loves to shop w/ his "villain" Finally, the whole globalization argument changes drastically when one addresses the diminishing petroleum problem. It's a lovely, but silly, idea to want to help people in poor countries by importing their fresh food/ flowers. Transporting non-perishable items (clothes, grains, coffee, chocolate, etc) makes sense, and helping them build local healthy food economies there makes sense. A man of your intelligence must see the difference between using petroleum to transport a person/book with life changing ideas and using petroleum to tranport perishable food? and even the difference between transporting a durable good like clothing vs an orange? anyhow, as the petroleum diminishes we'll be forced to reshape our ideas of globalism, and travel, and even our definition of local. (a days drive vs a days walk? that walk in nikes vs that walk in non-petroleum based shoes? etc.) Thank you for all of your good work, and especially for your open heart and mind. viva la revolucion!

Susanne Scott says …

My impression of Whole Foods thus far is that the local store has supreme authority for addressing consumer concerns. All consumer issues get rerouted directly back to the store - there is a complete hands off approach at the regional and national level. This is fine, except when a store manager aays that if you don't like things as they are, then you can shop elsewhere. The possibility for meaningful and intelligent dialog effectively ends with that type of response. This is what I am experiencing with my local Whole Foods regarding my concerns about the profound scarcity of grass-based products, 100% organic and pasture-raised beef, pork, and poultry, lack of fresh fish, and lack of transparency of explicit labeling definitions & criteria at my store (eg. please define natural, organic, 100% organic, fair-trade, etc... so the average consumer can make a truly educated decision on which product to purchase). The consumer can only drive true demand if they understand the often "subtle" differences. I agree that Whole Foods is well-positioned to fully educate the average American consumer and that the organization as a whole should take that honor and responsibility very seriously, especially if we hope to see consumer grocery habits and demand change.

Daniel Helfman says …

Dear Mr. Mackey, Pollan’s book helps readers learn more about where food is from, but it does not necessarily help us to shop better. The following is an idea that should benefit Whole Foods and its customers: Perhaps a food sourcing scorecard should be created by Whole Foods or a third-party supplier for your web site, stores and customers? This scorecard would allow a customer in Austin, Texas, for example, to see what percentage of vendors/producers are local, what percentage of the coffee sold is organic or Fair Trade, percentage of products that are GMO-free, percentage of meats sold with animal compassion principles, etc. Of course, such a scorecard might need constant explanations. Unlike, say Starbucks, Whole Foods is not selling primarily one or two products (coffee and tea); y’all probably sell 50,000 to a 100,000 different SKUs. But in the name of greater accountability, transparency and yes, Mr. Pollan’s book, perhaps this would help end the debate once and for all. Keep up the good work, Mr. Mackey, and please let me know if you would like more information on such a scorecard. As a former director of marketing for one of Ben & Jerry’s major vendors, I’ve developed such scorecards before.

Molly Mackey says …

Hello John Mackey, My name is Molly Mackey. I live in London and my dad shares your name! I look forward to the opening of your Kensington High Street Store. Molly

Gordon says …

Mr. Mackey, I want to add my appreciation for all that Whole Foods has done. I've shopped at your stores (and its predecesors) for 10 years and I believe you have truly elevated the awareness of foods -- at the industry and consumer levels -- in this country. I am now in the exact middle of Mr. Pollan's book but I don't believe he recognizes the logistical/practical challenges relating to distribution that WF has overcome. Further, he doesn't give your store enough credit for positive social change - competitors like Wal-Mart are surely getting into the organics market due to your success. Whole Foods is also changing society by making organics within the financial reach of more people (still not the average joe but the best you can). I live in Washington DC and often start the week's grocery shopping at some of the excellent producer-only farmers' markets run by My family is fortunate to have the financial resources to buy direct from farmers but products are often 2x the price of WF and 3x the price of a conventional grocery market. As an example, yesterday (9/14) I purchased a dozen grass-fed eggs from Cibola Farms for $5.50/dozen. Cibola also sells free-range, grass-fed chicken breast for $10/pound. A dairy (I believe Blue Highland Dairy) sells milk from local, grass-fed cows for approx $6 per half gallon. I don't blame the farmers for the high prices but it is far out of reach for the ordinary consumer, college students, etc. Instead, WF is actually using its size and efficiencies to improve, and lower the prices in, the organics market. In terms of globalization, people must realize that their palates/demands are the primary reason produce is flown in. Staples in our household include bananas, grapes, and pineapples, which are impossible to grow in Washington DC. The globalization of food (like most of our other commodities) is a necessary and positive force for consumers and suppliers. Whole Foods has moved the grocery industry and consumer thinking an immeasurable amount. Bravo to Mr. Mackey and all the wonderful WF employees!

Linda Y says …

What a GREAT dialog! I was very intrigued to read that WF hired an "animal compassionate" field buyer. It is equally intriguing that Mr. Mackey is vegan yet WF is embarking on this 'new' venture of compassion when selecting slaughtered animals for sale in his stores. When I 'Vegan-ized' my lifestyle over 10 years ago, I did so to prevent contribution to any animal killing for human use or consumption. More recently I've committed to the larger picture of an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. I have a long way to go and it can be very difficult and expensive at times but it is worth it to me knowing my hard-earned dollars support companies who share my same values. I hope one day to shop at a large specialty store void of any slaughtered animals or animal byproducts. As an Austin-born gal, this may seem odd to some but even a native Texan, raised on grass-fed beef, can dream to 'shop large' in a truly compassionate way, absent of dead animals!

John Mackey says …

Hi Everyone, Several people (including Michael Pollan) have asked what is the exact percentage of local produce we sell. I previously answered this question by saying that we didn't have this information available yet, but we were working to get it. Now we've got it. In 2005, 12.95% of the produce bought in our stores was locally sourced. So far in 2006 the percentage has increased to 14.85%. Translated into retail sales, we will sell more than $100 million worth of local produce in 2006. With our greater focus on local produce going forward, I expect the percentage of locally sourced produce to continue to go up. It will probably be close to 20% in 2007, with total local produce sales approximately equal to $200 million of $1 billion in total produce sales. John

Obie Pressman says …

Mr. Mackey, First, let me say how impressed I am by this blog and your willingness to leave it relatively open and uncensored. It speaks volumes about your ultimate intentions and desires. Second, I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and was utterly engaged and moved by it, in fact it changed how I eat (not radically though, as I already did a lot of my shopping at farmer’s markets and the like). A couple of years ago I mostly stopped shopping at Whole Foods because I couldn’t help but wonder how “good” could it really be if it’s a publicly traded corporation and beholden to its stock holders. Pollan’s book more or less reconfirmed my suspicions. However, your public dialogue with Pollan and your stated intentions in this blog have reaffirmed my faith in Whole Foods, and I have begun occasionally shopping there again with a watchful eye. Kudos. However, there’s an issue in this blog that I still feel you are dodging, by giving answers based literally on what your customers are asking, rather than providing them with slightly different information that Whole Foods must have on hand. I’ll quote your last exchange in regards to this question: “People keep making the same criticism about my not answering Michael Pollan's question about the actual percentage of local produce sold in our stores. I answered this question on this board back on July 19. I'll repeat the answer here again: “We don't know the exact percentage of local produce we sell in our stores. Produce that is bought locally doesn't have the same tracking mechanisms established that nationally sourced produce does. We know how many produce suppliers we have that are local, but we don't know exactly how much we are selling from each one because that information doesn't roll up. We don't have the "categories" currently established to track local versus national or global. This is an Information Systems challenge that we are working to correct.”” I’m going to word the question a little differently. What percentage of Whole Food’s payments, as a total dollar amount, goes to local produce suppliers and what percentage of Whole Food’s payments, as a total dollar amount, goes to national or global produce supplies? If you really want to blow my mind and give me full faith in Whole Foods, give a straight answer to that question.

Obie Pressman says …

Well, It seems you answered the overall question right when I was making my post, making my reworded question moot. Thank you. I salute your honesty and integrity Mr. Mackey and you have indeed given me faith in Whole Foods, which is how you’ve gotten my business. Keep it up and I’ll keep coming back.

Ian says …

Hi John, I recently finished reading the Omnivore's Dilemma, and since then have been ruminating on his assertion that "grass-fed beef" is the best way to repair ruined farmland in the US. As you know, Michael Pollan explains that a system of agriculture based upon "grass-fed beef" mimics the original "grass-fed bison" ecosystem that covered much of the US until the introduction of European agriculture, which in turn transformed after WWII into the fossil-fuel based cereal (and particularly corn) monocultures we have today. Mr. Pollan refers to this latter system as "industrial agriculture". As all participants in this forum are aware, these intensive monocultures of cereal grains (which are descendants of annual grasses) require enormous inputs of fuel, pesticides/herbicides/fungicides, and fertilizers. However, perennial grasses when grazed by herbivores (and fertilized by their dung) need virtually none of these (ultimately) fossil-fuel based inputs. My concern is that Mr. Pollan, despite his experiences slaughtering chickens at Polyface Farm and later on shooting a pig, remains a committed omnivore. (Perhaps he was persuaded by Joel Salatin's assertion that it's OK to slaughter chickens because they don't have souls?) Therefore for him it's no problem to be a strong advocate of perennial grass-based farming. However, I note that you are, like myself and many of the contributors to this forum, a vegetarian. I wonder therefore what your vision of sustainable agriculture in the US is? I know that you are a businessman, and you have to deliver what the market wants, but just suppose for a moment that more people in the US (as has been happening in the UK for many years now) start to switch to less meat-intense diets? And not for health reasons but for ethical reasons? In your experience is it possible to farm grains, pulses, beans, vegetables etc. (and, what the heck, a few chickens!) sustainably on a large scale in the US without mining the soil? Before the Europeans arrived in the Americas, for example, were the Indians able to farm corn and beans sustainably on a large scale? If not, it seems that this country is doomed to continue with a system of agriculture that slaughters vast numbers of animals, whether it is based on "grass-fed beef" or "fossil-fuel fed corn". Best wishes, Ian

Ian says …

One other thing. In the Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan compares Whole Foods with Walmart, implying that the former is a giant corporation like the latter. Whole Foods is indeed a US Fortune 500 company, but is still tiny in comparison to Walmart. If you look at the Fortune web site, you'll see that in terms of revenues, profits or assets, Walmart is 60 to 80 times bigger than Whole Foods. Walmart: #2 on the Fortune GLOBAL 500 list of companies Figures for fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2006, USD Revenues: 315,654,000,000 Profits: 11,231,000,000 Assets: 138,187,000,000 Whole Foods: #449 on the Fortune 500 (US only) list of companies: Figures for fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2005, USD Revenues: 4,701,300,000 Profits: 136,400,000 Assets: 1,889,300,000

Smari says …

I commend both Mr. Mackey and Mr. Pollan for this discussion and keeping it public. I think something truly revolutionary could come as a result and we need that right now. Smari

James McArthur says …

I've been a regular Whole Foods customer since you opened your first Toronto store a few years ago. In very many respects, I think John and his team have helped create the best 'convenient' way to buy organic or natural foods; and I thank them, as there are few if any comparable choices in the Canadian (or at least Toronto) market place. There is only 1 independent organic supermarket in Toronto. It has more limited hours and selection than Whole Foods, and is therefore not always the easiest choice to make. If not for Whole Foods, I would be stuck shopping at big chains, whose focus is far from the Organic and Natural, even as they do stock more of these types of products (most likely to defend market share against Whole Foods) I do, however, have two concerns about Whole Foods, which tie to this discussion. One is the 'affordability' of organics. I certainly support, and am lucky to be able to afford to buy organics. Though not everyone is so lucky. As such, I very much appreciate Whole Foods committment to value-based, organics being on offer, in the form of the 365 product line. Good luck finding most of those products in Ontario stores though. Where I am told by store staff that Whole Foods, five years on, can't get bilinugal labels (English and French), allowing these products to be easily sold, north of the border. If Whole Foods is really committed to making organics affordable for the everyday consumer (while protecting values), I think this should be remedied. Also, much has been discussed here about 'local production'...; but in Ontario there is no '365 Organic Butter' because Whole Foods so far hasn't been willing or able to source this product locally (which is a legal requirement in Canada for dairy). Overall, I think Whole Foods has been a boon for the consciencious consumer, but I am very much looking forward to seeing it strengthen that committment further. James McArthur Toronto, Canada

Dennis Boatright says …

Kudos to all. Such a great exchange of ideas. I shop at Wholefoods because I like the "energy" there. Is this too "new-agey"? I hope so. Frequently, in my distressed life, I find it supportive to spend my dime at a place that works for the enhancement of all concerned AND the planet. It is a kind of refuge for me and I physically and psychically "feel" the change when I enter a store. They're doing many things right. You can't fake this stuff. DB Dallas

Mark says …

Great discussion! :-)

Grant DiCianni says …

John, Like many others I stumbled on this section of the site while looking to see if I could find any info on if a store was coming to my area. After reading the majority of the posts I would like to offer something that takes the discussion from the world of theory and high ideals down to a more everyday level of reality. As someone who's diet is 80-90% organic (sorry I love a good pizza) I have to strongly commend WF for making a great line of organic products available. Truthfully, I do not really concern myself with "carbon footprints" or "assisting developing world farmers". While those are lofty goals, I am more concerned with the ability to buy quality organic products at a reasonable price (by the way, WF needs to work a little bit on that last part). Without question your comment in a past response is accurate, who is doing more then WF to make the above goals a reality? Clearly WF is at the forefront of the effort and is to be lauded for its progress and success. However, I would like to encourage WF in 3 areas: 1. Continuity of product offering. As a frequent traveler one of the first things I do when I check into my hotel is to try to find if there is a Whole Foods nearby so I don't completely derail my diet while traveling. What I have found is that there is a surprising lack of consistency between the offerings of stores (sometimes that's true even of stores that are in the same general market, like Southern California). As an example, I normally shop at the San Diego Store (even though I live 65 miles away). During my recent trip to San Jose, the store there had almost no raw milk cheeses, almost entirely different diary selections, about 75% fewer brands of bottled water, a bakery section about 2 times as big as normal, entirely different hot lunch selections and completely different chips, pretzels etc.) I understand that variance is driven by demographics and is a very crucial component to a diverse marketing strategy but one of the benefits of nationwide brands is that, within limits, the same services/core product line should be available in all stores. Now, I am not using one instance as a definitive example. These observations have been repeated, at differing levels, at stores in IL, NM, CA and elsewhere. I understand there are variances in availability and store space but I would encourage WF to create/enforce a "core" product line that the customer can be assured is always available across the country. (and no, I am not referring to the 365 brand... I have strong reservations about "house" brands in general and yours in specific, since the tendency at many of WF's I have been to seems to be to discontinue smaller brands in favor of the 365) 2. I have to strongly echo the comments of another poster earlier in this board in regard to the availability of produce within California. I am very frustrated at the lack of Organic produce (particularly fruits) that are available (or more often then not, "not" available) in California stores. I routinely find that at the beginning and end of a produce items "season" the CA stores do not have access to it with the rationale that it is "not available". Yet when I travel to the WF store in Albuquerque I see the exact strawberries or mushrooms or peaches that I was looking for and the sticker says "grown in California". If it was grown in California, how come WF customers in NM can get it but customers in CA can not? Doesn't that defeat the entire concept of local growers and minimizing the travel distance for perishable produce? 3. I would like to see a bit more discernment in the brands that are allowed into the WF stores. In southern CA there is another chain of organic themed grocery stores. In the past when I have shopped there it is very obvious that they have aggressively screened their products for quality (even the organic ones). I remember several times when I would ask for a particular item (i.e. Cream of chicken soup) and then the clerk would go in back to ask and then the store manager would come out and explain that the chain had made the decision not to carry that item, brand, etc b/c of... Repeated experiences of that with clear, rational explanations made me very confident that I could shop with an increased level of safety regardless of how familiar I was with the particular brand on the shelf. I do not find that same experience to be true at WF. There are several brands/items which I see on the shelf even though they do not come anywhere near being a high quality product (organic or otherwise). Some examples can be found in the baked goods and frozen sections. (and no, I am not "anti-Horizon" or anything like that) :)It would just be great to see WF impose a more strict quality standard on the brands and items that it allows into its stores. While I do not claim to be an expert on the entire WF offerings, we spend about 6-7 hours a month shopping at your stores over the last 5-6 years so I am fairly confident I have seen a lot of what you have to offer :). 4. Last but not least please do not ever decrease the offering of gourmet products! WF is about the only place that you can get a Raw Smoked Swiss cheese or an all natural Pumpkin Tartlet! Even us organic people need a treat now and again! Please don't take this post as being negative against WF. It's a rare occasion when a customer has the opportunity to direct a communication to the head of a company with any expectation that it will actually be read, let alone in a forum where it is very clear that you are most actively and honestly addressing these posts. I am genuinely thankful for having such a committed and excellent grocer to shop at. I just would hate to see WF stop at 80% of what it should be. Rather than a list of criticism I see the above as specific opportunities for WF to refine its model to truly offer the customer the best shopping experience possible, thus benefiting itself and the customer. Now for the really important part... what would it take to get a WF in the Inland Empire of Ca (Temecula, Murrietta, etc)? We have a great demographic for your brand and we have stores 65 miles to the south and 90 miles to the north. Need to put one between those two please! -grant dicianni

Tatjana says …

Mr.Mackey, I find one statement of yours crucial in this blog, and it is about "we have grown rich enough to be able to change these horrible practices". Congratulations, Mr.Mackey on not having lost sight of the vision that you founded your business on, on keeping focus on the larger good amidst the everyday meetings, statistcs, numbers, etc. I have every confidence about the bright future for your business. I am not from the US, but have spent some time in the US, and I also like your statement about acquiring the produce globally (unlike most people on this blog, which I can understand, in part). Here in Eastern Europe, most of our organic produce is shipped to the Western markets. Without Western markets there would be no (or very little) organic farming in my country, so I have to thank you for supporting our farmers and the environment. What happens in "poorer" countries which generally do not have enough money to spend on environment, you also plant an idea that enviromentally-friendly programs are profitable, so you introduce a revolutionary idea, before the country as a whole is even ready for it. Thank you and my respect!

Mikeal Palulis says …

John et al, I found this blog completely by accident, while reading an article on Motley Fool. This points out one of the major issues that I have. I have learned more in the last 2 days as I read this discussion about the variety of Beef and it's sources than I have in the 2+ years I've been a meat team member or the 9 years I've been employed by WFMI. There has been a breakdown in education and communication since the adoption of EVA as a core business practice. We, the rank and file TM's, are the first line of interaction with those who are most likely to criticize you and the company. Yet, we very often don't have the information available to us in any easy way. Those things said, I applaud our intent to increase our local product, and quite often choose to buy it. The definition of local does need some clarification, but closer is better for fresh foods. I would like to see more animal products labeled with their origins, but I can see where that could be difficult. And a short comment to the poster who said WF had stopped giving stock options to the rank and file... Not true! The way they are granted changed, but we all still get them. Thanks for having this discourse availible. If you would like to speak with me more, feel free to contact me, or stop by the Prospect St Store. I'm there quite often! Mikeal

Susannah says …

I have been working on a research project on exactly this subject and have come across a number of publications with similar concerns as Mr. Pollans. I find Mr. Mackeys comments on helping the poor farmers in poor countries by buying their produce condescending and uninformed. Free trade agreements imposed on developing nations by the WTO and others are incredibly crippling to local economies and small farmers. First thing they are instructed to do is to devote their land to growing gigantic monocrops for export markets which leaves the majority poor and without suitable food to feed their families. These countries are sought after by large transnational corporations because they provide low cost labour and often have minimum environmental and governmental interference in big business dealings. Because we all seem to like numbers so much here's an interesting figure, 70% of the world's hungriest live in rural areas. If these farmers were really making money off their trade I doubt this number would be so high. As Mr Mackey pointed out, farmers are in fact being poisoned by pesticides in these countries but it's because they drink it in utter despair for being unable to provide for their families. What these people should be growing is food for their families and local communities and not depending on minute returns for crops that they have been instructed to grow. Then heavily subsidized international imports are dumped on their markets either under the guise of food aid or surpluses, which makes it increasingly difficult for the farmers that are trying to make a living within their local communities. I strongly believe that a food system designed to make a profit has no interest in feeding the world, only a handful of rich. This is why co-ops are established and this is why as Mr.Mackey stated they have not succeeded to the level of his chain, many have no desire to. I strongly urge you all to seek out documentaries such as "Life in Debt" and "Darwin's Nightmare". These two films clearly illustrate the destruction that free markets can wreak on a country. I find it interesting also that the subject has come up about the lack of local produce to be found in California. That is because it all comes here to Canada where I am! 85 to 90% of organic produce sold in Canada comes from the US.(and I now a lot of local organic growers struggling to make a living). So Imagine now that this is the same story for most of the developing world and they do not have the bounty of $$ to fall back on. Some references: Laura Carlsen "The world needs its small farmers" Vijay Cuddeford "When Organic goes Mainstream" (this website offers links to many more intersting articles etc) I do appreciate the popularity and spread of organic products and support and encourage it, I just hope we don't lose scope and let a number of corporations use it as another trend to cash in on. I do not suggest this is the intention of WF. I feel that we as consumers have a responsibility to look at the true cost at every level of our purchasing choices. Mr. Mackey, keep up the open dialogue! Susannah Murphy, Nova Scotia Canada

Dan Deans says …

On August 27 I warned that the threat to the organic industry was not WFM, but the big corporate players like Wal Mart. This week, the Cornucopia Institute, an activist group representing small farmers, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that accuses Wal-Mart of incorrectly labeling or otherwise misrepresenting various products as organic in some stores. Visiting a dozen stores in four Midwestern states, the group found several troubling misrepresentations. In one case, "all-natural" yogurt was labeled organic; in several stores, non-organic products were residing in an organic-designated cooler. "We live and die by the reputation of the organic label," says Cornucopia cofounder and organic farmer Mark Kastel. "If Wal-Mart cheapens it, we all lose." Wal-Mart pooh-poohed the accusations and defended its organic offerings. Nevertheless, the USDA has opened an investigation into the retailer's organic-labeling practices; violations of labeling standards can carry a fine of $10,000 per instance. Enough said.

Indira Pradhan says …

Regarding Horizon Dairy products and milk I read this morning morning an exchange between's Mike Adams and Ronnie Cummings, National Director of the Organic Consumers Association. Here's what Ronnie has to say apart from other many other notable things about Horizon Organics and it's parent company Dean.Below is a small excerpt of their exchange: Mike(Adams): Is it fair to say, Ronnie, that the organic-labeled Horizon Milk on the shelves in Wal-Mart right now comes, at least in part, from cows that were at one point in their lives fed blood, manure, chicken litter and some other things you mentioned? Is that accurate? Ronnie: Yes, half of Horizon Organic's milk today comes from these factory dairy feedlots. One hundred percent of Aurora Organic's milk comes from these factory dairy feedlots. It is cheaper to not buy organic calves that have been raised from birth on an organic farm, but to buy conventional calves that have been raised as cheaply as possible on a conventional farm. The routine practice today on a conventional farm is feeding the animals blood plasma as a milk replacer. You feed them genetically engineered grains, slaughterhouse waste, and chicken manure. That is industry standard. Why? You can make more money doing it that way. For the full exchange on this topic you can go to As for Horizon products and Dean Foods, the conglomerate that bought it out, if you read what is said about them in the above url, it might make you change your mind regarding using Horizon as your suppier for dairy products. You also said in an earlier blog: "Interestingly enough, none of the accusers have ever actually visited Horizon’s Idaho facility..." but I think visiting one Horizon farm in Idaho is perhaps not sufficient to give the company a clean slate.Apparently, The Cornucopia did visit some of these Horizon and other organic farms: Below from the same conversation between Mike Adam and Ronnie. Ronnie: "It was called to our attention by a watchdog organization called The Cornucopia Institute, which actually visited some of these factory-style dairy farms that Horizon and Aurora call organic. They witnessed firsthand things like a farm where there are 4,000 animals, but only a few hundred acres of pasture. You cannot possibly pasture animals on that little pasture, especially when they are in semi-arid parts of Idaho, Colorado and West Texas." I am an avid and a serious shopper at Wholefoods and do all my grocery shopping at your Columbus, Ohio store. Most of my friends also shop here. I do hope you will diligently address the Horizon Dairy problem in the interest of consumers like me and millions of others who have put so much of trust in your company. Incidently, there seems to be some negative reports also on SILK, the organic soy milk also bought up by the giant conglomerate DEAN. Thanks, Sincerely, Indira Pradhan

Eric Brown says …

I have to share Mr. Pollan's skepticism of Mr. Mackey's commitment to local agriculture and to diversified family farms. I say this as a current small farmer and a former Whole Foods employee of about three years. One thing I can definitely say in favor of Whole Foods is that the corporate structure is, especially by comparison to other corporations, truly egalitarian. I can only offer very high praise for that structure and the open communication between employees that it allows. Unfortunately, that corporate openness opened my eyes to some of the ugly realities of Whole Food's compromises to the capitalist system. I think Pollan's most important criticism is of Whole Food's weak leadership, especially in the recent past. I imagine, for instance, that Whole Foods would like to avoid being open and honest with its customers about its model of shipping local North Carolina produce (whatever local produce it sells in the first place) to its distribution center in Georgia and back. Is this a winning strategy for providing the "fresh" and "local" produce that many customers want? Clearly this distribution model is serving other objectives. I had the honor of speaking to Mr. Mackey once as an employee. I appreciate his willingness to talk to me as an employee tremendously, but I was less than impressed with his answers to my questions. I asked him what Whole Food's commitment was to local agriculture. (This was in North Carolina.) He cited the new Artisan Food Crafters program, and gave me as an example a pasta producer in Tuscany. I replied, what about the local community, what about green spaces, local farms, etc. He said local farms often just couldn't "deliver value" or some such euphamism for generating corporate profit. If Whole Foods is going to be a leader, it's going to have to lead people to the value of local farms instead of following corporate profit wherever that leads. I suspect Whole Foods hasn't gotten too big and too corporate for the kinds of significant, positive things I'd like to see, though.

Mike says …

John, Your transparency is impressive. Thanks for posting the numbers on local produce as a percent of total sales revenue. You are, however, guilty of the same thing you accused Pollan of. Define your terms. Is local 50 miles? 100 miles? 250 miles?

Sally Allen says …

I sure hope that everyone that has something to say is at least growing tomatoes for know what I mean? God Bless the farmer. Peace,Sally

Sara in Fairfax VA says …

I am new to the organic and ethical food revolution (thanks to Jane Goodall and Michael Pollin) and am very encouraged to see this kind of dialog transpiring, quite literally, all over the place. I encourage Whole Foods to a) continue to develop their local food markets and continue their ethically treated farm animal program (why is Horizon dairy still on your shelves though...?) and b) try to resist the lure of capitalist greed in the name of corporate success; I encourage authors and journalists to follow this revolution and keep the progress transparent, and I encourage all of you who are reading this or taking the time to post to continue consumer advocacy in our respective locals markets to advance the age of environmental, sustainable and ethical relationships to our food and our planet.

Taylor A. says …

Hi, There are many whole foods I have seen open their doors in the West Los Angeles area since the early 90's when I was a young boy and Ms Gooch's disappeared. I am satisfied overall with the direction of this company, my only suggestions would be; *to open smaller stores specializing in produce in low income areas (near distribution centers) *more local, small scale organic / bio-dynamic * to encourage less packaging, and biodegradable when possible. Thank You for your time

tamara says …

i am so grateful to have come across this forum. i find it extremely encouraging that this dialog can take place without ego, in the interest of WFM customers, the soil in this country and the welfare of the animals we consume. i don't know anymore what is seasonal and what is not. these are things my parents know, and i only have a very small grasp of. i read one comment that food should be labeled where it comes from, and i agree one hundred percent. unfortunately, due to larger supermarkets (even though my mom and i shopped at the co-op when i was growing up) i have become accustomed to getting whatever food i want no matter what the season. i would be happy to shop strictly according to season, but to be honest, i don't even know what that means anymore. (i'm not a complete idiot, i know not to buy strawberries in winter, etc) i think whole foods can indeed (whilst still supporting farmers in argentina) lead the way in how we buy our food. in fact, wfm is the only avenue i can think of that has any hope of doing so. thank you for your continued commitment to making this world a better place. and ps, i also agree, lets try to use less packaging. i live in europe, and we have plastic that is biodegradable. and the food origin is also labeled, which has helped me immensely with my decisions.

Shirley C. says …

I almost don't understand why it's a big deal that Whole Foods feels like its been villified in Pollan's book. I think, while what Pollan coins "industrial organic" is only logical because any agricultural business needs to supply the demand, most people DO vision their organic produce as products of the pastoral green farm and the small business farmer. I never liked Cascadian farms, but I'd buy it if that was the only label offered. I don't think Whole Foods' reputation was damaged in any direct way. Pollan wrote a good book and he's an acclaimed writer. Whole Foods is a chain with a good, solid reputation. Should'nt that be all that matters?