An Open Letter to Michael Pollan

By John Mackey, May 26, 2006  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by John Mackey

Michael Pollan’s new book The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been near the top of the best seller’s list since it was published in April, and it deserves to be. This is mostly an excellent book which I strongly recommend people read, along with Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s new book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Both books are real wakeup calls about how our food is being produced in the United States today, and how our food choices potentially can make a positive difference in the world. While Singer and Mason have many nice things to say about Whole Foods Market in their book (especially regarding our approach to improving farm animal welfare), Pollan is far more critical and skeptical about many of Whole Foods Market's practices, both in his book and in subsequent interviews about the book in the media. Unfortunately Pollan did not carefully research Whole Foods Market's actual practices while writing his book so many of his comments about us are either inaccurate or misinformed. The letter that follows is one I gave to Pollan in person on May 25th after I spent a delightful hour and a half in productive dialog with him. (I have also included an additional section called “Creating a Third Way with Country Natural Beef” that was emailed to Pollan a few days after our meeting.) I found him to be highly intelligent, a good listener, open minded, thoughtful, and idealistic—all in all quite an interesting and impressive person. I came away from my dialog with him convinced that we will likely become proactive allies working together in our joint quest to reform “industrial agriculture.” I only wish we had met and had this productive dialog before he wrote his book. Unfortunately we didn’t and as result many misunderstandings are now circulating about Whole Foods Market as a result of his book and recent interviews. This letter is an attempt to address those misunderstandings.

 

I want to acknowledge that the following letter was not written by me alone but was a joint product of several people, including valuable contributions from Margaret Wittenberg, A.C. Gallo, Edmund Lamacchia, Jim Speirs, Kate Lowery and Anna Madrona. Thanks to everyone who participated.

 

May 25, 2006

 

Dear Michael,

I am deeply appreciative of your efforts to encourage your readers to take a closer look at where their food comes from. I especially like the way you lead your readers to understand that their everyday choices do make a difference both in the food supply chain and the environmental sustainability of the planet. As you point out in the "Big Organic" (Supermarket Pastoral) chapter of your book, credible information about the sources of our food in conventional foods stores is limited to non-existent.

As the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, I lead an innovative business that has offered customers numerous choices in natural and organic foods for more than 27 years. Yes, the business has grown in size — from one store to our current 184 — keeping pace with the increasing popularity of these products in the developed world. And, as a Fortune 500 company, we might be considered a big company by many people. However, Whole Foods Market has done more to advance the natural and organic foods movement in general and local organic growers and artisanal food producers specifically than any other business currently operating in North America. These points are not mentioned in your otherwise engaging examination of modern food systems. Quite the opposite, in fact, as you go out of your way to criticize Whole Foods Market and associate us (unfairly and inaccurately) with what you call "Industrialized Organic" and "Big Organic."

Whole Foods Market's co-presidents, Walter Robb and A. C. Gallo, and I try to be available to the media, as you might have realized during your research on other pieces that have been written on our company in the last few years. I am not aware of any attempt on your part to contact company leadership in any way. I greatly enjoyed reading your book Botany of Desire and I certainly would have enjoyed speaking with you in person while you were conducting your research. I may have been able to clear up some misconceptions before they appeared in print.

Because of our success and growth, Whole Foods Market attracts a lot of praise, comparison and, sometimes, hostility — along with the occasional puzzling ethical or moral judgment. As a retail business that operates at a level of transparency far exceeding that of almost any other business of its size, I find this curious but figure that these judgments are a by-product of our success. Your book focuses on several points, either by implication or actual statement that I find troublesome in terms of their accuracy. I want to provide you with additional background on these points and provide you with the names of Whole Foods Market spokespersons who can assist with any research materials or clarification that you may need in the future.

I regret that you did not engage in any serious research about how Whole Foods Market actually does business or you would have discovered that we support local and small farm food production all over the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Whole Foods Market, despite its size, does not operate as a typical monolithic corporation such as Wal-Mart (with which you associate Whole Foods Market several times in your book). Our company continues to operate on a decentralized model wherein each of our 11 regions, as well as each store, has a high level of autonomy. Differences in product offerings, suppliers, and seasonal availability result in a significant variation of items on our shelves from region to region and even store to store within the same city. However, our strict quality standards, the highest in the industry, are observed with every supplier and retail outlet. In other words, you may find a variation in the types and kinds of products, but each has been screened by our rigorous quality standards.

Before I provide you with examples of how Whole Foods Market supports local growers of natural and organic products and artisan food producers, I want to emphasize an important point about our company. Whole Foods Market offers a range of food choices to our customers. We screen our offerings by the quality standards I mentioned earlier and try to offer as many natural and organic products as possible, but we don't try to channel our customers into adopting any particular dietary regime. Instead, we provide opportunities for each to make individual choices that satisfy their everyday demands and lifestyle needs.

Some customers prefer to eat primarily from their "foodshed" or they wish to support local growers. Individual Whole Foods Market stores attempt to meet the needs of these customers as far as is practical given the constraints of seasonality and availability of products meeting our quality standards. Other customers want to enjoy particular foods from throughout the world, either because of their ethnic background or because they appreciate expanded choices and novel cuisines. Most of our customers prefer a combination of local, national, and global food choices, and appreciate — even demand — the range of choices Whole Foods Market offers.

We understand the line of reasoning that champions eating locally and in season. Whole Foods Market stores offer as many local, seasonally available foods that meet our quality standards as are available in a particular market area. Our customers, however, regularly desire products that may not be in season in many parts of the United States. Accordingly, due to such market demand, we offer the freshest, most sustainably grown products we can find on a year-round basis while also continuing to develop our relationships with local and regional producers in season. That may mean that a Whole Foods Market customer desiring fresh organic asparagus in January will find only spears with an Argentinean or Chilean origin in our produce department. Many of our customers want fresh asparagus and this is where we can reliably source organically grown produce at that time of year. In your book you report the following: "My jet-setting Argentine asparagus tasted like damp cardboard. After the first spear or two no one touched it." I want to apologize to you for your unpleasant experience with our Argentine asparagus and I've enclosed a $25 gift certificate to help compensate you for your negative experience.

The following information provides key points about Whole Foods Market and its supporting role in the growth of organic and sustainable agriculture over the last 25 years. I will also include examples about how Whole Foods Market works with natural and organic food producers at the local and regional level. I am providing only highlights. Should you wish to follow up on any of this information, I encourage you to contact:

  • Margaret Wittenberg, Vice President of Communications and Quality Standards
  • Kate Lowery, National Public Relations Director
  • Jim Speirs, Vice President of Global Non-Perishable Procurement
  • Edmund Lamacchia, Vice President of Global Perishables Procurement

Organic: Whole Foods Market is a Big Part of the Story
I find it perplexing that your book provided so little context for the history of the organic movement in the 20th century. The snapshot your book provides on the current state of the organic industry is just one stage in its evolution. The organization of the organic movement started in the 1960s in limited areas. As organic farming and foods were embraced by the counterculture in the 1960s and 70s, networks of co-ops developed and came together for purchasing and distribution purposes. These soon dissolved since members could not agree on ideals and because most of the co-op models were not economically sustainable. A few of these models still are working, including one I belonged to in Austin many years ago, however none of them have been able to offer a strong enough market presence to sustain local or even regional agriculture.

In the days when organic co-ops were plentiful, very little product actually came from small-scale, local, progressive farms. The cornerstones of the income statement in the early co-ops were rice, apple cider, peanut butter, cheese, tofu, eggs, some seasonal fresh products, and membership fees. In the 1960s and 70s, agriculture at the local and regional level was already in decline, having been decimated by low producer prices, lack of concern about diet by the American consumer, increasing desire for fast foods, decline in food quality, and an increasing, government-supported focus on chemical practices. Local agriculture hit rock bottom in the mid-1980s. The Greenbelt Alliance along with developing marketplace forces driven by the increasing numbers of "California Cuisine" restaurants and the for-profit natural foods sector supported many of the young growers who created the next generation of family farms. Without that effort in the 1980s, the snapshot that you capture in "Big Organic" would not have the same appearance. The focus on integrated marketing (including direct-to-consumer sales), crop diversification, product differentiation, and the general move toward agricultural sustainability through Integrated Pest Management (including organic) practices preserved and created the current resources that exist in local and regional agriculture. By offering multiple outlets for their products and working tirelessly to educate consumers, Whole Foods Market stores, along with many regional independent stores, are an integral part of saving and supporting regional and local agriculture.

As one regional example, in the 1960s and 70s, very little organic produce was actually available in New England. During our limited local season, Bread & Circus (which started in 1975 and became part of Whole Foods Market in 1992) bought vegetables from a few local small farms that were just outside of Boston. The farmers claimed that their produce was organic but without any national or local law defining the term, the organic label was used loosely. Still, our customers loved the freshness of the local product after a winter of week-old organic produce from California, much of which arrived by air in the early days (imagine the relative cost of that produce!). By the early 1980s, we had a few more stores in the area, therefore more buying power, and we started to buy, through brokers, from legitimate organic farms. Our selection was still very limited, maybe 20 percent local organic in winter, but at least at this point we had real, local, organically grown produce from trusted sources.

The local organic farm scene grew in the 1980s as young farmers experimented with vegetable growing and delivered directly to our stores. As the number of stores in the region grew, we opened a small distribution center. These farms appreciated the convenience of sending a produce-filled truck to a central distribution point from which we could deliver to our stores. This development allowed the farmers to maximize their efforts on the farm, rather than spend so much time on the delivery, and allowed us to receive more frequent produce shipments in the stores. We still buy from the farmers that we originally worked with in the 1980s, if they are still in business. As part of Whole Foods Market, we have grown to more than 30 stores in the New England and New York area, and our local growers have a much larger market for their products.

But the limited growing season and the dense population in New England force any food business to make choices in meeting consumer demand. Whole Foods Market customers are going to eat fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter. We have the choice of either offering them conventionally-produced vegetables or organically-produced vegetables that will have a lot of transportation miles on them. The organic fruits and vegetables at this time of year are going to be from large farms to insure quality and supply, and some of them may be from organic producers in another hemisphere.

Local Procurement
In other parts of the country, we sell a tremendous amount of locally-grown food, working with thousands of local producers. For example, in 2005 in the produce category alone, 45% of our suppliers were considered to be local (within 200 miles) and 34% were regional (within 400 miles) —only 21% would fall into your category of "Big Organic" national producers. 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. Economies of scale are important at all levels of the organic food chain in order to lower costs and improve distribution.

As a decentralized company with 11 operational regions and 8 distribution centers, Whole Foods Market is highly unusual when compared to the average "industrial" operation. Regional distribution helps suppliers gain access to all stores within the region, a benefit to their bottom line that otherwise would not occur in a conventional grocery operation. Whole Foods Market continues to build distribution centers, which increases our ability to support regional and local production. Our individual stores are not prohibited from purchasing from local farmers, and, in fact, all of our 184 stores purchase regularly from local growers. Many growers, likely the ones you profiled as "missing in action" at the Berkeley store, are probably using our distribution center on their own volition to take advantage of distribution economies of scale. As a result, the growers spend less time on the road, and place their product in front of a much larger customer base.

Continuing on the theme of seasonality and distribution, the local grass-fed beef sold in the Union Square Farmers Market that you have publicly championed is fresh for a very limited time during the year and would need to be sold frozen for the majority of the year, if sufficient supplies were actually available to meet demand. Whole Foods Market does sell locally-raised meat whenever possible, however most of our customers want their grass-fed meat fresh, rather than frozen, and they want it year round. We can source an abundance of fresh meat from New Zealand, which, with its moderate climate, has an abundance of good pasture throughout the year. Although Whole Foods Market would like to sell local grass-fed beef regularly, another challenge is that a small producer typically needs to sell the whole animal, which leaves Whole Foods Market with the cuts our customers will not buy. Our farmers in New Zealand have different markets around the world that absorb the cuts our customers will not purchase. The farmers in New Zealand can move the beef more quickly, selling Whole Foods Market the cuts that our customers prefer and selling the other cuts to customers elsewhere. We do try to make it work whenever we can, such as with a local organic beef farmer from Southern Vermont who sells to our three stores in New York City. With a great deal of effort, Whole Foods has figured out how to market this producer's entire animal. The popular cuts like rib eyes and strip loins get sold as premium product, while the end cuts get made into hamburger and stew meat for our prepared foods section.

Whether local, national, or global, any meat producer we buy from must adhere to our strict vendor standards and criteria. Whole Foods Market has the highest natural meat standards in the industry, and we are spearheading the development of national Animal Compassionate Standards (which several European countries have in place, but which are lacking in the U.S.). In addition, Whole Foods Market provides educational support for producers through our non-profit Animal Compassion Foundation. As a side note, you may be interested to know that many of our meat producers do not finish off their animals with corn. They are grass-fed until the end.

Here are additional examples of how Whole Foods Market supports local growers and producers:

  • In our South Region, consisting of Georgia and the Carolinas, we set up a mini co-op to consolidate product from local vendors. Whole Foods Market also provided a market for the row crops produced by former tobacco growers (who were part of a government project to grow alternative crops instead of tobacco).
  • In the still-recovering New Orleans market, local shrimpers rely heavily on the two Whole Foods Markets to buy their catch.
  • In New England, Whole Foods Market works with many small farms that supply a single store, several stores, or many stores through our distribution center. Some specific examples are:
    • Our Hadley store in western Massachusetts sits in the Connecticut River Valley amid many small farms, and has authority to buy from local producers. During the season, Hadley buys local produce from over 25 small local farms.
    • Whole Foods Market stores in eastern Massachusetts are encouraged to source from local growers; this results in many stores having their own individual growers from the local community.
    • In the Tri-State area of New York, customers define "local" in a very narrow geographical area. Customers in northern New Jersey do not consider product from Connecticut or Long Island "local," even though the farms might be geographically closer to them than farms in southern New Jersey. Our customers in Jersey want Jersey produce in season. Whole Foods Market developed a complicated system that distributes Jersey produce to the Jersey stores, Long Island produce to our two Long Island stores, upstate New York produce to our NYC stores and Connecticut produce to our Connecticut stores.
  • Our flagship store in Austin supports local growers and encourages in-store product demonstrations and samplings. Our local Texas growers, like the Goodwins from Buda, Carol Ann and Larry from Boggy Creek Farm in Austin, and the folks from Bella Verdi farms in Dripping Springs, are frequent guests at the store. Whole Foods Market and these growers see our businesses as a part of each other's on-going success.

In addition, Whole Foods Market works with local food artisans on a market by market basis. Scratch bakers and dessert makers, tortilla producers and fresh salsa crafters, hummus experts and falafel sandwich purveyors, gourmet dog biscuit peddlers and handmade jewelry artists all have shelf-space. Products offered at Whole Foods Market vary store by store, thus supporting the local producers in each market. We most decidedly do not have a cookie cutter model for our stores, other than our model for celebrating local foods and producers.

On-going Support for Organic Agriculture
Whole Foods Market was a pioneer in the organic arena, we did not wait to "get on board" with organic until its health and environmental benefits were corroborated by science and economic analysis. Whole Foods Market has supported organic agriculture from our earliest days in Austin, Texas. We actively sought out sources of organic produce and food since 1978 and continued this practice as we grew. Did you realize that Whole Foods Market was the sole retailer representative on the federal National Organic Standards Board for five years? And that we continue attending National Organic Standards Board meetings and maintain a close watch on the issues to ensure the ongoing integrity of organic standards. Whole Foods Market led the consumer response against the USDA's draft National Organic Standards that included provisions for genetically modified food crops, the use of human sludge as fertilizer, and irradiation of food products.

Whole Foods Market chaired the Organic Aquaculture Feasibility Task Force in 2001 to explore whether organic standards could be created for aquaculture while still maintaining organic livestock standards and principles. The task force suggested it was possible but would take a lot of work to achieve. Unlike many other retailers, Whole Foods Market will not allow either wild or farmed fish sold in our stores to be labeled as organic since neither has a national organic standard currently in place.

Whole Foods also led the citizen outcry at the potential diminishment of organic livestock feeding standards. The Congressional newspaper Roll Call noted that Whole Foods Market's efforts alerted legislators and consumers, resulting in an overwhelming amount of direct consumer feedback to individual legislators. Whole Foods Market took the lead on this issue rather than waiting for the organic community to develop an action plan because of an extremely short timeline.

Whole Foods Market was the first national grocery retail chain to be certified as organic. While not required by law, we felt this certification would underscore our commitment to organic and would provide assurance to our customers that even as the company expands, our commitment to organic is as strong as ever.

Helping Convert More Agricultural Land to Organic
The most important story about the rise of organic agriculture is the reduction of the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, many of them petroleum based, and/or produced and distributed with huge energy inputs. Beyond this impressive reduction in the use of pesticides, many of the agricultural practices developed within the organic community have spread out into conventional agriculture with tremendous beneficial impacts. Some of the more significant impacts include:

  • The use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in the strawberry industry, the use of border plantings and cover crops to protect water ways and improve soil tilth, and the development of insectaries for producing beneficial insects improve the quality of the food we eat while protecting the environment.
  • Acres of land in California treated with cancer causing synthetic materials: 1989 = 5.2 million, 2004 = 3.8 million – 28.8% reduction, with similar acres in production
  • Pounds of pesticides known to cause cancer applied in California: 1989 = 181 million, 2004 = 175 million - 3.3% reduction (unfortunately the positive story is in specific counties and on specific commodities)
  • Acres of land in California treated with reproductive disrupting synthetic materials: 1989 = 4.5 million, 2004 = 2.3 million – 49% reduction
  • Pounds of pesticides known to cause reproductive disruption applied in California: 1989 = 36 million, 2004 = 24.12 million – 33% reduction
  • Pounds of registered pesticides applied to Strawberries in Monterey County: 1985 = 10.5 million, 2004 = 3 million – 71% reduction
  • Pounds of registered pesticides applied to Artichokes in Monterey County: 1985 = 162,908, 2004 = 62,567 – 61.5% reduction
  • Pounds of bio-pesticides with little environmental toxicity applied in Monterey County: 1984 = 1,037, 2004 = 7,000 – 575% increase

Your book implies that some large-scale organic farming is harmful to the soil and environment. Your farm visit to Greenways may have misled you into making gross assumptions about other organic operations. The implication that some large-scale organic farming practices release harmful nitrogen into the atmosphere is curious when it is not even clear that Greenway's practices produce harmful nitrogen emissions.

Soil with healthy organic matter converts excess nitrates into dinitron (N2). N2 is an inert nitrogen gas that does not add to the Greenhouse Effect, and generally perpetrates much less environmental harm than nitrates. Stanford University's Department of Biological Sciences released a paper in March of this year entitled "Reduced Nitrate Leaching and Enhanced Denitrifier Activity and Efficiency in Organically Fertilized Soils," that reported organic and integrated fertilization practices support more active and efficient denitrifier microbial communities, which may shift some of the potential nitrate leaching losses in the soil into harmless dinitrogen gas losses in the atmosphere." Granted you did not have access to this information while you were writing, however, similar research findings are available.

Walking Our Talk with Organic Dairy
Whole Foods Market's private label milk is from the nation's largest cooperative of organic family farmers, CROPP. CROPP was founded in 1988 by seven Wisconsin-based farmers who were attempting to meet the crisis of the loss of family farms. The 533 small to mid-size member dairy farms feature a herd-size average of 66 cows. The certified organic, traditionally pasteurized milk (not ultra-pasteurized) is produced and bottled in California, the northeast, northwest, and midwest, and is distributed nationwide by Whole Foods Market. The farmers who belong to CROPP are dedicated to humane animal practices such as pasturing and allowing animals to express natural behaviors.

Other organic milk suppliers who sell to Whole Foods Market are audited (by Whole Foods Market team members with backgrounds in animal husbandry) for humane raising practices, including commitment to a pasture-based production system. I personally went to visit two of the largest organic dairy farms last week that have been highly criticized for their animal welfare practices (particularly their inadequate access to pasture). One of these farms has made very substantial changes to their pasture access and has been unfairly attacked, in my opinion. The other dairy is definitely a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) using organic feed and is violating the spirit of the current organic dairy standards. Tougher organic pasture standards will be necessary to force this dairy to upgrade their practices. Whole Foods Market does not buy any milk from this company. Whole Foods Market has strongly urged the USDA and the National Organic Standards Board through the public comment process, as well as through a detailed, public presentation at the April 2006 USDA Organic Pasture Symposium, to tighten up humane animal care standards for organic dairy cattle, specifically focusing on pasture as a requirement for raising and feeding these animals. The organic pasture requirement for dairy cows was not well specified in the original regulations, and this has led to some abuses. However, I am hopeful that this flaw can and will be corrected within the organic regulations in the coming year.

Creating a Third Way with Country Natural Beef
Whole Foods Market is very committed to the success and sustainability of smaller family ranching. I believe this is a solution of scale that lies squarely between your “Joel Salatin” meal and the “industrialized organic” meal. As we both know, the reality of regional foods from family farms and ranches is that very few can produce the volume to effectively market themselves outside of small farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets are a good thing to be sure, but by themselves, they aren't going to have the scale or the convenience to really reform industrial agriculture in the United States.

While you point out that industrial organic is a modest improvement over conventional industrial agriculture, I believe a third path is possible. Previously I explained how Whole Foods Market has partnered with CROPP to supply all of our stores with organic milk under our private label (with average herd size of only 66 cows). Another great example is Country Natural Beef (CNB), who we’ve been trading with for over 12 years now. Like CROPP, CNB represents a viable “Third Way” for small family farms to find success in an industrialized agricultural world.

By joining together, the ranchers who make up Country Natural Beef take advantage of the reality of the cattle business as an extremely capital-intensive and low-margin business that takes 27 months from conception to processing. They mobilize member capital to fund what amounts to a wholesale meat company to directly reach their retail partners like Whole Foods Market. Here are the numbers:

  • Country Natural Beef was paid more than $26 million in 2005 for beef representing more than one quarter of Whole Foods Market’s total national beef sales last year.
  • The approximately 89,000 cows raised for Country Natural Beef are spread over 92 family ranches, averaging 542 cows per ranch, along with five larger ranches (averaging 7,800 head each) such as Padlock Ranch, which is operated by 18 family members who hold ranch ownership under one name.
  • Less than four percent of money is used to run the business, meaning that almost $25 million of those dollars paid from Whole Foods Market went directly to 97 individual Country Natural Beef member working ranches.
  • Those dollars are responsible for bringing 11 young families back to family ranches during the past 12 years and are helping hold well over four million acres of land as open space as cattle ranches.
  • Whole Foods Market works with Country Natural Beef to set mutually beneficial prices based on sustainable ranching costs of production.
  • All Country Natural Beef ranches are third-party certified by the Food Alliance for humane animal handling, equitable labor practices and sustainable, environmentally friendly land management.

Whole Foods Market’s ability to partner with many more cooperatives of producers with shared values such as CROPP and Country Natural Beef could make a significant, meaningful and lasting impact on the land and the success of agricultural families.

This is not “supermarket pastoral.” Whole Foods Market’s commitment to buying and promoting regional foods from family farmers and ranchers is real, and the solution demonstrated by the success of Country Natural Beef is something to observe and study.

CAFOs & Whole Foods Animal Compassionate Standards
Whole Foods Market shares the concerns you expressed in your book about large scale CAFOs, whether these be conventional or organic. These "factory farm" operations need to be eventually outlawed, in my opinion, and this is an area where major change is necessary in the organic regulations. Whole Foods Market is so concerned about the way livestock animals are being raised for food in the United States that we are in the process of creating Animal Compassionate Standards, which we are hopeful will eventually have a revolutionary impact. Creating these standards has been a multi-stakeholder process with many dozens of animal farmers participating along with representatives from several animal welfare groups — Humane Society of the United States, PETA, Animal Welfare Institute, VIVA, Animal Rights International, and Compassion Over Killing — plus a number of internationally renowned animal scientists. We have been working with these stakeholders for over 2 1/2 years now and have created final standards for ducks, pigs, sheep, and beef cattle. The Compassionate Standards for turkeys, lobsters, and broiler chickens are very near completion, while laying chickens and dairy cows will be completed before the end of 2006. I urge you to review the standards that we have already completed, which are available on-line at: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/issues/animalwelfare/index.html#standards

Animal Compassion Foundation
To help facilitate both research and the conversion of conventional animal farm over to more compassionate livestock operations, Whole Foods Market created the Animal Compassion Foundation. So far Whole Foods Market has donated more than $1.3 million to fund the foundation over the past two years. I urge you to take a look at the important work this foundation is doing to better the lives of farm animals. Animal Compassion Foundation

The Future Evolution of Organic Foods
Industrial agriculture grew tremendously throughout the 20th century. Synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, and synthetic herbicides were not in widespread use 65 years ago. There were no such things as CAFOs more than 40 years ago. GMOs are less than 20 years old. The organic movement has largely grown in response to the industrialization of agriculture. It is a reform movement that has been growing and evolving for less than 60 years, and didn't gain any serious traction until about 20 years ago. The first stage in the "Organic Reformation" has concentrated primarily on getting the synthetic chemicals off our farms and out of our food. We have made great progress in achieving this goal considering where we started from. However, we now know that getting the synthetic chemicals off our farms and out of our food is only the first stage in the Organic Reformation. Much, much more is needed — especially with improving the soil, dismantling CAFOs, improving local organic production and availability, and improving animal welfare. Rather than despair that the Organic Reformation has been corrupted by the industrialization of agriculture, I believe that we simply need to evolve to the next level. Your book is an important contribution for raising consciousness for the need for further evolution of the Organic Reformation. Joel Salatin's farm is a valuable example and model for what is possible and is an inspiration to many of us. Many organic farmers are beginning to work with similar methods that Salatin has pioneered. You are probably already familiar with Holistic Management International. This non-profit organization is helping to spread effective pasture management systems similar to what Salatin has done. It was founded by one of Salatin's mentors, Allan Savory. You can find their website at http://www.holisticmanagement.org/index.html in case you aren't familiar with their work.

Offering the First Lower Priced All-Organic Line in the U.S.
Finally, with our private label 365 Organic product line, Whole Foods Market offers our customers every day, affordable organic choices from "soup to nuts." Well aware of our moniker "Whole Paycheck," through initiatives like our organic store brands and the purchasing discounts we can now enjoy because of our size, our food prices have decreased in many categories over the last few years. Our prices for the same products are actually lower for many staples than those in conventional grocery stores or competitor natural foods retailers, while our selection continues to include a range of items from staples to higher quality or more exotic choices.

In summation, Whole Foods Market has supported the growth of, and driven significant demand for, organic agriculture for more than 27 years. Throughout this time Whole Foods Market stores have supported local growers and food producers in store market areas. Because of our unique, mission-driven business model, our success has allowed expansion throughout the hemisphere and into Europe, where we can offer healthy and environmentally sustainable food options to an ever increasing customer base in store environments that celebrate good food and an abundance of choice. I am not sure if merely because of our size and success Whole Foods Market deserves the pejorative label "Big Organic" or "Industrial Organic," or even to be linked to those categories. I would argue instead that organic agriculture owes much of its growth and success over the past 20 years to Whole Foods Market's successful growth and commitment to organic. As an organization we continually challenge ourselves to be responsible and ethical tenants of the planet. Through our stores, large and small organic farmers, both local and international, can offer their products to an increasingly educated population that is more interested in organics every day.

Again, I value the wake up call provided to such a wide audience by The Omnivore's Dilemma with its overview of the social, ethical, and environmental impacts of modern food production. Whole Foods Market is extremely excited about the possibility of a more educated and informed consumer base. However, I feel that the book misrepresented key points about Whole Foods Market, and this leads me to question some of your objectivity as a journalist. Much of the organizational, economic, and social and agricultural activism leadership information about Whole Foods Market is readily available from a variety of public sources. In addition, our leadership team members, many of whom have been with the company for more than 15 years, are readily available to speak with the media. Going forward, I trust that the information I've provided will find its way into your making a more accurate portrayal of Whole Foods Market. Michael, Whole Foods Market is one of the "good guys" in this story about the "industrialization of agriculture." We want to transform our food procurement pathways into more holistic, ecological, and sustainable systems. We should be working together as allies to accomplish this essential mission.

Sincerely,

John Mackey, Co-founder and CEO
Whole Foods Market

Category: michaelpollan

 

109 Comments

Comments

Ari Nava says ...
Good read. I would like to appreciate John for your continued diligence and dedication. Also appreciations for Margaret, A.C. and Walter. Thanks for this forum and open door policy which makes Whole Foods unique.
05/28/2006 3:35:39 AM CDT
Brian Davis says ...
Thanks for the informative letter. It's nice to have some facts and figures on our sources. As a native New Yorker, I was most amused by the narrow definition of "local" that is adhered to in the tri-state region.
05/29/2006 3:27:27 PM CDT
Louis Santiago says ...
Dear John, Greetings and kudo's to you and your companies leaders for developing and maintaining an organization that can run against the big dogs yet focus on the little people and their desires to remain as healthy as food stores will allow, your response to Mr. Pollan could not be any more concise. Fortunately your web site affords you the forum to reply to the innacurrate criticism in a detailed manner, no doubt he cashed in on the gift certificate! Best of all to you in your endeavors and future. With kind regards, Louis
05/29/2006 3:32:55 PM CDT
Matt says ...
I have been really interested in this issue as I did my independent research project on the business and economics of sustainable agriculture. I tried to discover what is possible in terms of implementing sustainable agriculture on a mass scale while maintaining a strong economy. After reading Pollan's book, I did question my purchases at WholeFoods and other supermakets. Nonetheless, I am impressed with information presented in this letter. The contributors did an excellent job in presenting the impact the company has on the farming industry. These statistics prove that the company's operations are economically and environmentally sound. Not only has Whole Foods grown at a significant rate, but the company has maintained healthy agricultural practices. I think that Pollan's argument is aimed at the fact that many customers, who live far away from the farms that supply most of the produce to Whole Foods, think they are supporting local farms when in fact they are not. Pollan's argument is that the food system should be entirely local and that is commendable in itself. I found, however, in my independent study, that of course, such a system is not sustainable in business terms. If people demand international food, for example, the companies must supply that type of food. And of course, consumers in less-temperate climates will always demand vegetables in the winter since our food system allows such a thing. I commend Whole Foods for its support of organic agriculture. Not only has the company accomplished the things listed in the letter, but Whole Foods has spread the notion of an environmentally-sound food system. The food that Pollan promotes in his book (especially the wild food) is entirely different than the food offered at Whole Foods. I am glad to see this letter and I hope people understand the difference. Both kinds of food help the earth, yet one (Whole Foods) is sound business, while the other, foraging and hunting, is either a sport, lifestyle, or game.
05/29/2006 4:09:26 PM CDT
Drea Stein says ...
Severe digestive disorders started me on the path to organic eating after my doctor offered me pills and said that dietary changes wouldn't help. I discovered Whole Foods and started learning more about the company and their philosophies. I am now very proud to work for such a socially and environmentally conscious company as Whole Foods Markets. Thanks to John and all the good folks at Whole Foods who get the big picture. You continue to wow me with the class in which you responded to Michael Pollan's book. The general public still buys food based on price rather than the quality of the food that they are getting for their money, much less the impact that their choices are having on the environment. Whole Foods is changing that and we all benefit from their efforts.
05/30/2006 8:17:32 AM CDT
Tana says ...
Hello, John, I am gratified that you took the time to write such a thorough and compelling post about Whole Foods Market's participation in supporting local farms. I blog about small farms, and it has become my life's work and passion to do so. The more I see, the more I want to share my love for the farmers and ranchers who are so carefully raising the food we eat. Likewise, shunning agribusiness and "food from boxes" (you know what I mean, I hope) in the pursuit of real food is also central to my life's work. I admit that I have never even seen inside a Whole Foods store: I live in Santa Cruz county, which is home to more small and organic/sustainable farms than any county in California, and that probably means the entire country, as well. We've got our good markets, though, and I imagine they're somewhat similar in their contents. (Hmmmm, now I'm wondering where my nearest Whole Foods Market is.) I hope you will visit my blog, and that you like what you see. Please feel free to e-mail me. And keep up the good work. I appreciate every dollar that trickles towards my farming friends. They should be our celebrities, not the nitwits and ninnies who gracelessly intrude into our living rooms and eyeballs, gleaming from the covers of trashy magazines. Whoops, did I say that out loud? : D
05/30/2006 1:49:07 PM CDT
Angela Quinn says ...
John - I read your "nature bio" in Backpacking magazine... Many great tips! I forwarded the article to a friend of mine, a big RE developer here, in Las Vegas - and, like myself, constant Whole Foods Vegas consumer - telling him to (try) and get on board with the sense of life being too short... You have a great product on a bunch of different levels... As a non-profit developer and environmentalist, I feel we need more teams like yours...
05/30/2006 6:58:19 PM CDT
Jeanne says ...
Great response John. I had no freakin' clue. Really I didn't and I consider myself pretty well aware of ag and food issues. I'm also a communications professional by trade. I wish I had known more about all that WF is doing. Rock on--I think you need to get your Comm folks to two step it up as more of us in the cause need to be your champions---if only we knew all of this sooner. Whadup with that?
05/31/2006 8:08:26 PM CDT
Suebob Davis says ...
I appreciate Mr. Mackey's tone as much as the content of his letter. The fact that he chose to thank his collaborators speaks volumes about the way Whole Foods does business. Most CEOs are only too willing to take all credit for themselves.
06/01/2006 2:58:57 PM CDT
Marc Bayer says ...
John, It is a delight to see a CEO who is so in touch with so many details and aspects of his Company. You really "walk your talk". Best wishes to AC and to Jim Speirs. Regards, Marc Bayer
06/01/2006 6:28:05 PM CDT
Thomas Mylan says ...
Mr. Mackey, As a former WFM team member I would like to comment on your letter as being slightly misleading. WFM is a business and, as such, makes it's decisions based primarily on profit margin, market share and dollars-per-basket statistics. These profit driven decisions mean that store management are pressed to do whatever is most cost effective which is not often the same thing as doing the right thing when it comes to the food they sell. My intent here is to clarify not criticize your statement. Obviously there is, and must be, room for both the Pollanesque model of argicultural production/consumption and the WFM soft-industrial model. There must be a middle ground between farm stand and the industrial grocer and you fill it well This does not disqualify Pollans views on your company. I have read the O.D. and I cannot honestly say, after spending 4 1/2 years involved in the day to day operations of two WFMs, that his observations were, at all, off base. If anything, I would describe Pollans writing about WFM as having incredible clarity and insight into how WFM actually operates versus your more theoretical and PR spun version. WFM is a boon to anyone who wishes to have choices in the market and vote for their prefered method of production with their dollars. However, Whole Foods is a corporation. By definition their first allegiance is to profit and secondarily to product. I realize that your image is important and you view this open letter as an important way to shine it back up after an apparent tarnishing in Pollans book but I think it might have been more productive to be honest about the nature of the large scale grocery business and agree to look into the elements of your operation that he called attention to.
06/03/2006 7:22:49 PM CDT
Marlene Walsh says ...
I appreciated the detailed commentary by John Mackey in response to Michael Pollen's book criticizing certain aspects of the Whole Foods operation. While not quite a newbie with the organic industry, I do struggle with some of the confusing aspects of today's defining of true organic and what seems to be an affront to the integrity of organic farming, labeling etc. I will continue researching this subject and take in mind Mr. Mackey's defending arguments and hope that Whole Foods does truly stay committed to the purity of the organic movement.
06/04/2006 9:11:38 AM CDT
Michael Levy says ...
Warm greetings John, I enjoyed your interview on 60 minutes. I would like to send you a copy of my latest book "The Joys of Live Alchemy" as I feel you have used your alchemy in a most authentic way and will resonate with what you read. In Love & Joy Michael Levy. Professional Optimist http://www.pointoflife.com/
06/04/2006 6:47:45 PM CDT
Evelyn says ...
John, I only found out about the fundamentals of your corporation tonight on 60 Minutes. I was intrigued. A year ago, for my last year in high school, I had to write a 4000 word essay on a topic of my choice and I decided to do a chemical analysis of contaminants in cow's milk. Through my research, I found it easier to enter a nuclear facility than a dairy farmers laboratory. After just doing the background write-up I switched to soy and never looked back. I'm astonished that we know everything about the cars we buy, but don't research enough about what we put in our mouths.
06/04/2006 8:48:03 PM CDT
Adi says ...
Dear Mr.Mackey, I am very impressed with your business philosophy, as I watched 60 minutes tonight. I never realized and knew WFM before, as it does not exist in our community (yet, hopefully soon). Best, Adi
06/04/2006 9:36:32 PM CDT
Kimberly says ...
I watched Mr. Mackey on 60 minutes, too. I am so inspired by his opinion about the humane treatment of farm animals. I am very anxious for the integration of animal compassion standards into the food we buy. I know the best way to support methods like organic farming is to *vote with your dollars*. I pay more for humanely raised food and once the humane standards become mainstream, an increasingly greater number of people will, too.
06/05/2006 1:50:01 PM CDT
Lorre Lefur says ...
Mr. Mackey- Thank you for the things you said during the 60 Minutes interview. It's important that the public hear you and others state that the quality of an animal's life matters. I regret that there are no Whole Foods Markets in Cincinnati, and look forward to the day when one opens. Again, thank you for your brave comments. Lorre Lefur
06/05/2006 2:16:18 PM CDT
Linda Dempsey says ...
Very informative piece on WF last nite and your letter of clarification was not defensive just informative. You and your company prove that working and living the high ground works and is appreciated. Thank you. Linda
06/05/2006 3:13:07 PM CDT
Ellen Evans says ...
Dear Mr. Mackey, That was a terrific response. I am a dedicated Whole Foods customer in Los Angeles. I am lucky to have 3 markets very close by. You don't just provide quality products. You educate the consumer, and that is a wonderful part of your marketing. In the end, also, you act as the shopper's conscience. Since this is the case, I think it would be a terrific idea to raise consciousness about eating local food. If certain produce (or other products) were labeled "local" or "in season," consumers could be encouraged to make even better choices. Sincerely, Ellen Evans
06/06/2006 12:08:40 AM CDT
Carla says ...
The only conclusion I can draw from John Mackey's voluminous (not concise, as Louis Santiago would suggest)response to Michael Pollan's book and the several sycophants who commented on the letter is that none of them actually read the book, though they certainly "paged" through it in parts.
06/06/2006 2:57:58 PM CDT
Elizabeth says ...
While watching the 60 Minutes interview I laughed out loud when the interviewer suggested that you may be a bit whacky regarding your compassion toward animals. He truly does not 'get it'. If the energy of the food is not of the utmost quality having lived a good quality of life, than I don't want to put it in my body. I don't want the bad energy that is contained in chickens that never see the light of day, of tomatoes picked before they ripen or of strawberries saturated with pesticides. How much richer, tastier and full of energy is the salad greens and radishes of my own garden! Good energy taken in creates good energy to share with the world!
06/07/2006 10:16:31 AM CDT
Trish Sierer says ...
I just finished reading both "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter". Although I started reading them out of curiosity, I have to say that they have shaken my entire food philosophy to its core. I am a native Austinite and a soon-to-be small vendor of Whole Foods. Although I grew up in a city where fresh, local food was abundant, I was raised on mostly processed foods. And like a lot of people, food wasn't really a big part of my life. I only ate to sustain myself. Its only been in the last 12 years that I have become more enlightened about the quality of food, where it comes from, how to play with it, and the animals that are affected by my choices. And it's thanks to farmer's markets and stores like Whole Foods that I have been able to make this transition. These stores are not available in every city. Some people (like my mother) can ONLY shop for groceries at Wal-Mart. Personally, I think the entire food industry is in the beginning stages of a major shift. Soon, organic food will be available to anyone, anywhere. Not just people who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. Yes, that means Wal-Mart will soon be the largest organic food retailer, but in the overall scheme of things, isn't that good? After reading "The Wal-Mart Effect", I think the small organic farmer is going to have to get creative in order to survive and do business with them. There are just going to have to be significant changes. Whole Foods may have indeed "gone corporate", but they can use their power and money to educate the masses about where their food comes from. Eventually, organic food will be the standard just like it used to be before we even had processed food. And it will be cheaper for anyone of any class to attain. We, the consumer (and vendor), must speak with our dollar and try to keep Whole Foods true to their principle... I think of the corporate sell-out issue like any true Austinite would... Mackey is in the same position as a musician. If a musician is really good at what they do, they will eventually reach a cross-roads where they either have to buy into the major record deal to get their message heard or they become locally known and their message reaches less people. You either go for it or you don't. I think Mackey has done what I would do in his situation: go for it, but stay true to your principles (and your roots) no matter how big you get. Although this might be difficult in business, I think he is doing his best to stay true. The 60 Minutes interview just showed me that he's still got his principles with him. And that means something to me, my company, and my own customers.
06/07/2006 11:48:08 AM CDT
Howard says ...
Dear Mr. Mackey: I learned about Whole Foods from your 60 minutes interview. I was sufficiently intrigued that I found your website today and read much about your company. I also read your "open letter" response to Michael Pollen's book. First, I think that many consumers like myself really do not understand the fundamental difference between your stores and the Walmart or Safeway food markets. My family has traditionally been one to seek out "sales" on foods, considering foods to be homogeneous products. I have now learned that your stores offer food products often at a premium in terms of price, but I am open to paying this premium based on the promise that I will be eating safer and more beneficial food products. This not only benefits the individual, but also the environment. In addition, as more and more people like myself decide to pay the premium, this will increase demand and will allow "organic and natural" suppliers to increase production, and acheive economies of scale, which should eventually translate into lower prices. Second, the main critiscm from Pollen appears to originate from his claim that Whole Foods does not adequately support local organic farmers, and instead, supports larger organic operations. This misses the point. The food industry is now dominated by giants like Walmart who do little business with even the so-called "larger organic operations." Your stores are making headway into the food market and as you grow, so will your suppliers. As the suppliers grow, they will produce more and hopefully have more efficient operations without sacrificing the organic and natural aspects of their food products. Over time, this will allow the "organic and natural" suppliers to compete (in terms of price) with the large food suppliers that now dominate the market. In turn, perhaps one day, giants like Walmart may be tempted to offer their products for sale based on profit based decisions (I know that does not sound good, but ultimately, it will result in better food products for more people at cheaper prices over time). This is how capitalism works. Please keep up your efforts at educating the public about Whole Foods. Do not assume that everyone understands the differences in foods that appear at Walmart and at Whole Foods. Many of us are formally educated (I have a post-secondary degree) but have not been sufficiently advised about the benefits of natural and organic products for the individual and the environment. I will be visting a Whole Foods store in Phoenix in the near future!
06/07/2006 5:51:38 PM CDT
Valerie says ...
Dear Mr. Mackey, I am a local specialty food retailer in Birmingham, Al. specializing in homemade meals to go and local Alabama products and produce.We have been open almost three years now and unfortunately I don't think we are going to make it. It is sad, my vision and hard work was not enough for this market, not to mention we don't have the capital to put into the store that it needs to continue to grow. However, after hearing the needs and wants of my customers in the Birmingham area, I am excited for Whole Foods to come to Birmingham. We are all anxiously awaiting your arrival. This market firmly believes in your philosopy. We need more people like you in this world. In fact, I hope to be a part of your team when you get here. See you soon. P.S. I haven't read the book but I'm on my way to get it.
06/08/2006 4:55:16 PM CDT
Jeff Chase says ...
My wife and I shop regularly at Whole Foods and apppreciate that its presence in our community improves our quality of life. Even so, Pollan's comments about production scale and the distance of the supply chain have resonated with me. Several years ago I read an article saying that apple growers in my home state of NC were suffering because of competition from large-scale producers in WA and CA. After a fall trip to the NC mountains, during which we visited several fruit stands and bought some delicious apples, I went to Whole Foods and asked about NC apples (I don't think the origins were labeled at that time). The produce manager told me that Whole Foods contracts for its apples nationally, and all the apples in the store were from the west coast. It was then I realized how deep the problem is. When I was a kid (in upstate NY and in NH), we had local apples in my local grocery store. Our Whole Foods does carry some regional produce now, but at least one grocery store chain (Harris Teeter) often does better. I know that Whole Foods is making things better. But there is so much further to go. Now we buy as much of our food as we can from the farmer's markets and from a CSA.
06/09/2006 7:05:26 AM CDT

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