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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Judi Bikel says …

This discussion would be very interesting if my Los Angeles-area Whole Foods actually seemed to carry organic produce. The selection of organics in season in California is really quite poor. There is far, far too many imported "organic" products in season in California and far too little from local producers. Finally, the dairy selections often come from the worst of the mega "organic" dairies. They are all ultra-pasturized which is the lowest possible quality. And despite repeated-- repeated requests I can't even a decent brand of cream in the stores. I shop at Whole Foods all the same time but not because I think of it as an organic store. I shop at it because it is close. Real, sustainable organics are purchased from my local farmer's market.

Tim Hogan says …

John (& Michael), I am grateful to both of you for this dialog - i am learning a great deal about the politics of food, but also about the value of an intelligent and courteous exchange of ideas. Thanks ... ... th

NYC says …

This series of letters consists of the most intelligent exchange of both dialogue and information about argribusiness and organic/sustainable farming that i've read to date. While I at times (jokingly) refer to Whole Foods as "whole paycheck" the truth behind the jest remains that my first access and exposure to the store (as Fresh Fields and Bread & Circus in DC while in college) permanently changed my way of eating and thinking about food (I'm a city girl after all). I wanted to take a second to applaud that whole foods will be staging a "farmers market" of sorts. I currently shop at the Union Square greenmarket for a lot of seasonable produce- but it is rare that a stop at the greenmarket does not end in a stop at the Union Square Whole Foods for ingredients to supplement a recipe. When out of season, and for my daily supplemental shopping (I shop daily for the most part, a small take away from my time in europe)the new Time Warner store gets my money. I try to be as local and seasonable as possible, and I think a lot of others also like the feeling of buying directly from the producer- and I think a lot of those people will stop in the store on those market days when they may not have intended to. (ie, it is good for business too, I don't see why so many try to harp on the capitalism element.. i'd say it is an honorable way to make money(and we all have to make money) Kudos!


The strong points put across by John in addressing Micheal's curiosity could only be summarized like this, "If you can't beat them, them join." I have been following John's interlectual defense of organic food and his advocancy for the localization of the supplies. This will boast not only the local counties but also foster job creation which will have a direct impact on the overall national scale by reducing unemployment. Am a true believer of organic foods and what Whole foods market has done over its 25 year of existence is highly commendable and needs the support of people like micheal who argues for the sake of it. I wonder what Micheal's views are on Walmart?

MikeB says …

It is encouraging to see this kind of open dialog between two people trying to make a difference. I feel very fotunate to have Whole Foods in my area and I applaud their animal welfare efforts.

Lily Lu says …

Thank you for being so transparent to the consumer. I have another layer of respect for Whole Foods and am really enrolled in the fact that there are such high ethics and strong green values behind such a large corporation. And I love the new initiatives that are being put in place!! Kudos!

sheri mora says …

I know enough about Whole Foods and their mission to know they've done and are doing more for the planet and its inhabitants than any store of its size and reach. With that said, it is impossible for an entity of that magnitude to be without some sort of flaw, but Whole Foods makes a commendable effort in their commitment towards ethical trade. The Renewable Choice wind initiative/program let us get involved at an accessible level…it was something we were not even aware we could participate in. Cheers to Whole Foods and thier helpful shopping is no longer a chore, but a positive experience that is also proving educational for our kids. We are thankful for the enlightenment, products and resources they provide.

Karen Ginsburg says …

I think that the success of Whole Foods is not surprising given that it does not have a typical business philosophy. It can be summed up by quoting John Mackey: "At Whole Foods, we measure our success by how much value we can create for all six of our most important stakeholders: customers, team members (employees), investors, vendors, communities, and the environment.". This is the same philosophy where I do customer service work (Verizon Wireless is extremely successful). I have worked hard through diet and exercise to maintain excellent health. I am blessed with a wonderful, loyal circle of supportive personal friends. At work many tease me when they see that I carry my lunch in a Whole Foods plastic bag - I've been called a "food snob" and asked how I can afford to shop at "Whole Paycheck". I ask (myself, I avoid conflict with coworkers) how they can NOT afford to eat wisely and all the hidden "costs" of poor health they choose for themselves by smoking, drinking heavily and eating at McDonalds 3 times a day 7 days a week. They have asked if I am working for WF since I'm always trying to sell people on shopping there. WF should emphasize that healthy eating does not have to be expensive (I rarely buy the prepared deli foods like my lawyer fiance does). For example, I buy Cedarline frozen vegetable lasagna at WF for $1.75 less than it costs at Albertson's. The Whole Kitchen Ratatouille is delicious (but not as good as my homemade version). Products like the fat-free balsamic vingrette dressing put lightly on cooked vegetables makes sticking to a low fat, low calorie, yet filling diet easy. Like my best friend says "Its the Quality and freshness". KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!

Marcus Stephanus says …

Thanks, John Mackey, for putting so much time and thought into this response to Michael Pollan. I hope that your proposals will be effective and widespread; and I hope that you and Mr. Pollan will in time come to reach a fuller agreement over these matters of terrific consequence, to which you have both committed yourselves in your own ways. I was particularly happy to see you praise so highly the work of Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I too admire them greatly. Their work deserves a wide readership, and I thank you for helping them reach it. Related to animal rights (but not really the same, and needing to be distinguished) is an important biodiversity issue, the plight of many oceanic fish species, especially as adversely affected by fisheries. I am not acquainted with Whole Foods' practices and policies regarding such endangered fish as swordfish and Patagonian toothfish ("Chilean sea bass"), and so have nothing to say to you on the subject at present. But I agree with Michael Pollan that in order for your actions to remain consistent with your professed values (and you have set yourself an admirably high bar!), including a commitment to educate people toward making thoughtful and responsible environmental choices in the food they buy, you will need to be sure you are doing all you can in discouraging them from making very bad choices. Best wishes. And yes, Vive la re'volution! Let us hope we are all soon persuaded of your full engagement.

Dennis Phayre says …

John, You're in a difficult position of trying to convince Michael of a perspective that is beyond his present state of comprehension. He can understand the logic of your argument but he can't accept your facts or comprehend the system that is producing them. He is simply approaching the issues from his current level of development and that is not the same level you are analyzing the issues from. As you have previously stated in one of your "gatherings", one level of perspective is not neccessarily better than the other. But one level is more integrated and forward thinking than the other, and possibly more accurate. Both of your perspectives are valueable and to some degree neccessary. Michael's perspective will appeal to a world of people who are not only intested in what he has to say, but who are ready to take the next step to his level of thinking. That is a great service. Your perspective will reach a different audience; those who are presently operating at or ready to leap to your level of thinking. We can not see (accept as real) what we're not yet ready to see, we simply block it. Michael's work is a valuable contribution to the development of more critical thinking on these issues but he is vested in his "conclusions" and unwilling or unable to honestly explore the limitations of his work. While I find Michael's observations interesting and important I do not feel inspired by them. I am, however, deeply interested in and inspired by your's. I look forward to communicating more with you in the near future about these and other issues. I will stay in touch. Peace Dennis


I feel its completely out of ignorance why people call Whole Foods Market as "whole pay check"; a research on all baby food products will reveal that they are actually cheaper than even Winn Dixie and Publix. A careful examination of prices at Walmart will show that actually some of the items they carry are very expensive as compared to Whole Foods line of products like the 365s. WFM is no longer a place where the rich can shop but you could find a wide range of people shopping and enjoying every bite of the tasty foods in their cafeterias. A friend of mine based in Ghana just infomed me that a school down there bears the WFM logo in appreciation to the efforts through the blessing basket project. Am yet to hear if Walmart, Publix, Kroger has ever done such a thing. Eating good food has nothing to do with a perfect market niche, its all about one's health and the long term benefits good food brings to oneself. Alternately, the choice is purely a personal one, eat at McDonalds and in the end all the savings will go to hospital bills due to unhealth and substandard foods.

Bob Waldrop says …

The animal compassion standards linked in this blog article don't seem very compassionate to me. Cattle and buffalo could still be feedlotted for 1/3 of their lives and fed an unhealthy feed of grain and corn. There appear to be no standards on crowding of animals, and the pig standards would allow confinement in small areas as long as there was some bedding. If there is a "need" to burn the beaks off of the turkeys, then there is something wrong with the way those turkeys are being raised. I would not buy meats or poultry raised under these standards, and I think they are deceptive in terms of actual compassion. Regarding importing produce from poor countries, a couple of years ago I needed a new roof, and the roofing crew were all from the same village in Mexico (I found this out during lunch). They used to be farmers, but then one day the Mexican government came and took away their land and gave it to a big corporation to grow vegetables for export to the United States market. And so it came to pass that they ended up in Oklahoma City working as roofers Thus, I doubt your claim that buying produce from third world countries helps "poor farmers". Is it really helping poor farmers, or is it simply driving a process of land disposession where corporations are taking over land held traditionally by indigenous peoples and driving them into urban slums? I think that buying food from third world countries is the moral equivalent of stealing food from the mouths of hungry children. Regarding the "buy locally" argument as an argument for "local selfishness", that sounds like the self-serving screed of somebody totally invested in globalization, which could be described as a system of global selfishness for corporations. I spend 80% of my grocery money for local foods which I buy directly from farmers, so I figure that the 20% of my grocery budget which goes to a regular grocery store is my contribution to the larger economy. I don't begrudge the national market 20%, but I am not going to spend my money for food that tastes like crap just because some shill for a big transnational food corporation bleats "buying local is buying selfishness".

Patrick Timpone says …

My first visit to a Whole Foods was in 1983. I’m always amused by the people that take Whole Foods to task for all the things “they could be doing better” and who relish in criticizing what Mr. Mackey has help build over the twenty five plus years. I believe all Souls salivate at the concept of taking an idea and starting, working it, and building, shaping it day in day out and reaping the benefits. Only a handful of people have the courage and determination to do it. Those that don’t criticize those who do. Patrick Timpone

John Mackey says …

I just want to make a brief response to Bob Waldrop: Bob, you are complaining about Whole Foods natural standards, not our animal compassion standards which are being set at a much higher level. The animal compassion standards are new and far, far stricter than the existing natural standards. If you carefully read our detailed animal compassion standards on our website (scroll down further on that standards page) you will see the following accusations you make about our animal compassion program are not true: 1. Feedlots are not permitted for our animal compassionate beef cattle. 2. We don't yet have animal compassionate buffalo standards. 3. We definitely have detailed space requirements for all 4 of the species where the standards are completed--beef cattle, pigs, sheep, and ducks. These space requirements are far greater than the any other standard that we are aware of anywhere including Organic, Certified Humane, or the E.U. 4. Our animal compassionate standards require continuous access to pasture. They are fundamentally pasture based standards and all the species will spend most of their lives in pasture. 5. We don't have animal compassionate turkey standards completed yet. However, beak trimming or other mutilations will not be permitted for turkeys in the animal compassion program. Just as Whole Foods sells both conventional produce and organic produce, so we will sell animal products that qualify under both the natural standard and animal products that qualify under the stricter animal compassion standards. The animal compassionate product will be clearly labeled to distinguish it from the natural product--just as organic produce is clearly labeled to distinquish it from conventionally grown produce. Over time we hope to migrate more and more of our sales to the animal compassionate program, just as over time we have migrated our total produce sales to over 60% organic. Regarding Whole Foods organic international produce purchases, you are of course entitled to your own opinions about this, but I will say that your opinions are not based on any actual facts or accurate knowledge. Much of our international organic produce is purchased from various cooperatives who pool together produce from their smaller farms in order to have marketing and distribution economies of scale. The exact same thing is true for most of our international coffee purchases--most of it is bought from cooperatives which represent thousands of poorer farmers. Buying organic produce and coffee from the poor countries of the world makes a very significant difference in helping improve the lives of poor farmers. I strongly encourage you to better inform yourself on this issue. As my letters to Michael Pollan have indicated: Whole Foods is going to be increasing our locally grown produce and locally produced animal products significantly over the next few years. We know we need to be a better job here and I promise you that we will. However, Whole Foods intends to also maintain its commitment to international organic produce, especially from poorer countries. We know that one of the most helpful and caring things we can do for the developing world is to buy their organic food products. It helps improve their soil and their environment, while also helping them to lift themselves out of poverty. 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.

Lana Holmes says …

I commend the efforts that Whole Foods is making in the organic, buying local and animal welfare areas. However, since both Mr. Pollan and whole foods advocate buying local for environmental reasons and avoiding CAFAs partly for environmental reasons, why not more of an emphasis on shifting to a vegan lifestyle, which will have more of an impact on the environment than any other measures? I realize that you cannot dictate to your consumers, but could you not do more in terms of education in that regard? Even addressing it in your exchanges could help. Further, I do not see any reference in the animal compassion standards to the actual killing of these animals - surely, humane standards are desperately needed at that stage as well. All the best, Lana Holmes


Bob, on June 16, 2006 Whole Foods Market Stopped Selling Live Lobsters and this decision meant sacrificing huge sales in that category because suppliers were not meeting the conditions set forth in the animal compassion standards. My convinction on your complaints is that even if Whole Foods Market had to give everything for free, people like yourself will still complain as to why the company is giving out free stuff or why its treating all Earthly creations humanely. If you are so much concerned about animal welfare, What are you doing about it? What sacrifices are you making to help out the first starter (Whole Foods Market) in regards to animal welfare? You need to walk the talk! On globalization, i think you need to understand the fundamentals which promoted this concept, its all about the desire to cut costs and then maximize profits by participating companies and individuals; again, Whole Foods Markets is ready to forgo all that which comes with globalization and its going local by supporting local farmers like the ones you buy from. We need to be proactive and help out in this genuine cause for animal welfare instead of complaining.

Lori Z. says …

I find it absolutely AMAZING that John Mackey/Whole Foods have been placed in a position where he/they need to defend his/their success! No one cared to complain when Whole Foods was a small Texas company with just a few local stores; however, incorporate and open more than a "few" locations, and suddenly you're the big bad wolf and the downfall of society as a whole? Why do we not applaud the success of others: because we are jealous that we did not think of it first! Or worse, we are jealous because we DID think of it, but did not get off our lazy, entitled butts and DO something about it! If people think that Whole Foods is not "doing it right," then I challenge those people to get up, get involved, and do it better! It is amazing how easy it is to stand back and judge others, not to mention how it takes the spotlight off your own weaknesses/failings. Besides, if Whole Foods is "not doing it right," then why did my local Safeway, after being open for less than two years, just remodel their store? ... It now looks remarkably like a Whole Foods, with an entire "organic" department! Although I do not agree with the Whole Foods philosophy in it is entirely, I certainly applaud them and John Mackey for taking a stand, clearly stating their/his position and mostly for being willing to see the weaknesses/failings of their system and taking action to change. When you have the success they do, change is not easy, nor is it always the most popular thing to do when it comes to pleasing those who have the most to lose: the investors and the employees who must implement the changes. As for the "Whole Paycheck" moniker; although I do not shop exclusively at Whole Foods (I have always been a comparison shopper, shopping sales and coupons)I have found that I do find better prices on certain items (yes, cheaper than Wal-Mart!) and I ALWAYS find better quality. There is something to be said for "value," and the best value is not always the cheapest! In closing, I challenge those who claim Whole Foods is just another "monolithic corporation" to investigate this claim. Look into the guts of the corporation, its pay structure, its benefit plan, its dedication to its team members and to its customers. You may just find yourself standing a kiosk applying for a job! To John Mackey and the Whole Foods Team: Keep up the good work, and keep striving to improve the lives of those you touch daily.

Paul says …

I can't figure out why Mr. Mackey and Mr. Pollan didn't address the issue of living conditions for the chickens that supply eggs and meat to WFM. Wasn't that a major point in the book that has been totally left out of this exchange? Though I don't agree with every move WFM has ever made in history I am enthusiastic about the direction it is taking and hopeful that the problems the company is facing will be solved in a most sustainable way.

Kai Isaaccura says …

Great ralley! I am uplifted by the information shared in this discussion. I know all too well from my own trials that one man, nor one company can do everything "right" except to live into his own personal standards, and I commend John's personal standards, as well as his patience, foresight, and acceptance.(It takes alot of thoughtful prioritizing, wisdom, and compassion to be a vegan and still take initiative to subsidise meat farming for its betterment!) I am also curious about Whole foods aplication and views on the seafood industry. I myself am mostly vegan, but was raised by my parents seafood business. Many fish farms are very ecologicaly destructive, (not all,) yet wild catching is destroying a very sensitive and invaluable eco-system. There are also justified growing concerns about the mercury levels of oceanic fish, (accompanied by terrifying statistics.) I am interested to hear Whole Foods, (or anyones,) opinion about what can and is being done to improve the state of our oceanic industries, both by corporate and indevidual initiatives. As for great eco imports(John)- check out All profits go to protect Ecuadors endangered Amazon from and the Quechua people that inhabit it. The operation depends almost entirely on the export of their "jungle chocolate" and the resulting eco-tourism. Also- consider buying from/ openly suporting the MST cooperative food movement in Brasil,(if you don't already.) You must know if it. I Live in Venezuela now, and having been all over the world, I would say that Companies like Whole Foods, in conjunction with grass-roots movements, can do alot to jump-start the global progress economically, moraly and ecologically, and spread awareness of why at least the latter two are so essential. Your International Micro-loans can actualy promote the eventual food sovreignty of otherwise highly exploited nations. By your own standards as an international consciencious corperation, you now have an inescapable obligation and responsibility to serve therin. Keep it up, With Gratitude and respect all 'round- -Kai

Cricket Malmar says …

Interesting discussion, yes. Food as philosophy. The fact of the matter is that industrial farming is about monoculture. I would imagine it's mind bending for a large chain (like Whole Foods) to admit that small scale farming (yes, what is small) - let's call it integrated farming is much better for the environment. That aside, Whole Foods is responding to the demands of the market. Don't want to see live lobster, fine - we'll get rid of it. It's hypocritical though on the part of us consumers - we eat dead animals - just don't let us see them! We want cheap food - we want small pastoral farms. We don't want to pay the farmers for their work. We don't want to think about protecting ecosystems when looking for dinner. We'll just look for the organic seal and everything is all right. And that just isn't so. Whole Foods isn't the enemy, we are. Don't like it - don't shop at one. I don't - but watching what they do is endlessly fascinating to me! I'm glad Michael Pollen raised these questions, even if he didn't answer all of them. Would Whole Foods have ponied up the 10 million if it weren't for the publicity this has generated??

Michelle says …

First, I am inpsired by the works of Pollan, Singer and the like. I do believe in a reformation of the current, conventional food system. Second, I am also inspired by the place where I work and shop: Whole Foods, not only for the new initiatives for supporting local agriculture, but also because this dialogue was so open. So, in short: Thank you to John Mackey for constantly updating the way Whole Foods does business and for being so open to customers and employees. And thank you to Michael Pollan for bringing up valid questions, concerns and possible solutions to the public eye. Thanks, Michelle

Rex Barney says …

Finally, in Mr. Mackey’s response, do we get to the heart of the matter, though he is much too professional and refined to actually utter the truth. Being neither, I have no such qualms. Mr. Mackey ultimately, and correctly, exposes Mr. Pollan’s true goal; promoting a radical leftist agenda, and attempting to force upon us his vision of some Marxist utopian myth. Collective farming…please! I think it’s been tried, Mr. Pollan. Speaking of Stalin, is the irony lost on everyone but me that a “hero” of Mr. Pollan’s Omnivore is “Joel Salatin”. You have got to be kidding me…you can’t make this stuff up. It also seems that Mr. Salatin, with his “caged organic chickens” has the same problem that poor Uncle Joe had in the 30’s. The theory was great but the execution (no pun intended) difficult. Mr. Pollan’s arrogance throughout his reply is staggering. “I observed what I observed”. I guess that makes it fact? And if he ultimately is the arbiter of what is “acceptable” (read: local), does that mean folks in the Northeast should be denied citrus? And are folks in Arizona out of luck when it comes to apples? What should the folks in upstate New York eat in the winter? I guess we are all ignorant consumers, needing to be told what we should or shouldn’t eat? It is amazing we are even able to lift food to our mouths without the help of the Mr. Pollans of the world. The ultimate, though, is Mr. Pollan’s torturous dilemma over whether he is “quite there yet” to offer an apology to WFM. Is there really a chance that WFM could be bestowed the honor of an apology from Mr. Pollan? Wow…gee whiz…we sure hope so. His self righteousness is so over the top, it would be humorous if it weren’t that his failed ideas still resonate with some fringes of society. Mr. Pollan’s thinking is pedestrian at best, his agenda transparent, his use of fact convenient and his logic arrested. I will give Mr. Pollan credit in the area of creativity, though. Choosing WFM as the foil in his book was marketing genius. Selecting Wal-Mart would have been so cliché, the premise of which wouldn’t have made it past his junior editor at Penguin Press. WFM should be championed for all that they have accomplished in creating awareness, providing education and bringing quality food and produce to the mass market in an economically sustainable manner. Sure WFM should try to improve, get better and find ways to further the cause of all of its constituents. It is the proverbial win-win and it is one of the hallmarks of good ol’ fashion capitalism. But to suggest, as some bloggers have, that Mr. Pollan’s goal is to make WFM better by taking them to task is naïve and disingenuous.

mr. A . Lim says …

we are dealing with a lot of interest groups here.Some are talking about how they can profit more from organic foods. i though johns WFM PHILOSOPHY was about promoting eating healthy,eating organic environment friendly foods.WFM NOT ONLY SELL what its customers want ,it also make sure what its customers want is also good for their health. i think WFM PHILOSOPHY will have a major impact on peoples health, and it will also help cut health care cost when you sell somthing that is good to your customers ,you are sharing with your customers . that is the value in your products.

Herb Dreyer says …

Although I confess to not following John Mackey's career, the notion of "industrial" in any framework, such as the Pollen/Mackey exchange, has always meant to me a process that serves industry, not those served by industry. In this case the agricultural industry--or better industrialized agriculture--it grows stuff to serve its needs, not the needs of its end users. In this sense it does a spectacular job--the best in history. Problem is, of course the stuff it grows does not grow us: it merely serves industry (remember you cannot achieve a country whose health is in such terrible shape as ours if its people are, at least, eating foods that contribute to their health--for this, as they say, the science is settled). Now there is an international organic foods industry and one must (must) wonder who foods they serve. What we need is food that clearly contributes to health, grown by people who commit to serving others. It makes no difference to me who grows my food as long as they grow it for my health and can prove it. Remember the quote, "The purpose of agriculture is not the production of food, but the perfection of human beings"? (Fukuoka, One Straw Revolution) .

Dawn Dexter says …

wow. I came to the whole foods website to beg and plead for a whole foods store nearer my home in aspen, colorado and now I've been reading John mackey's blog for the past hour. and what an education I've been getting. I shopped at the whole foods market while visiting denver last weekend - 3 times. I toyed with the idea of making a monthly pilgramage to do some bulk shopping, but the cost of gasoline is prohibitive. on that note, I am eagerly following many debates on globalization. mr mackey makes a valid point about the poor farmer in argentina - or elsewhere. it is valid to want to shop locally to save on transport costs - both to the environment and the pocketbook and to support local merchants, artisans, farms, etc, but we already live in a global economy. we are all typing these responses on computers not made in our local economies, most likely. there is no one that even grows tea within 200 miles of where I live - so should I just stop drinking it? I would be hard pressed to eat only food that was grown within 200 miles of where I live. I would most likely become malnourished within the year. so, even with the lack of a whole foods market in the area, If I have a choice, I buy local (in season) organic, then regional organic, then organic from wherever I can get it from - often, if I can't get organic, I just go without. If I have a choice, I choose the organic tomatoes from mexico over the "conventionally" grown tomatos from colorado. why? because I want to speak to the farm owners with my food choice dollars -- pesticides ultimately end up contaminating the ground water whether its here or in mexico. And I do think about those farm workers in mexico. if I buy the organic tomatos from mexico - yes - there is an environmental cost in fuel spent to get them here - but at least the workers have the choice now to work on a farm where they and their children and their community won't be poisoned by pesticides. the global economy isn't going to go away. the best we can do is to embrace it in a way that is least harmful. and encourage more innovation and debate in the realm of less environmentally destructive ways to transport goods and people. mr mackey - can you comment on the fuel economy standards in the whole foods fleet of vehicles? seems the environmentally correct thing to do would also be good for the company's bottom line. oh yeah -- and back to my original reason for visiting your website -- can we PLEASE have a whole foods market in Basalt, Colorado - just 20 miles from Aspen, centrally located in the Roaring Fork Valley. We could easily support one. :-) Thanks for the enlightening discussion you've posted. i've bookmarked this blog as regular future reading. -Dawn Dexter Snowmass, Colorado

Jessica says …

I agree that this would be a interesting discussion if WFM was actually supporting local produce in Minnesota. The WFM here thinks that local is shipping in from Chicago IL., a state that we don't even border on! The Produce dept looks beautifull and bountiess but it is all from down south or California. IT"S NOT LOCAL. Amazingly enough the Co Op's do have local stuff, so it's out there...

Damien says …

I live in Bloomington, IN, so Whole Foods (or what I'd want more, Trader Joe's) are theoretical to me. But some comments: John: your GNI/capita for Argentina really surprised me. I checked the World Bank site and yeah, see numbers like that, but also that their number has fallen by half over the last five years. This while the CIA World Factbook has them at $13,000 GDP/capita, with 9% growth. I think something's funny going on with exchange rate corrections. On local food or not: I get the emotional appeal and environmental logic of locally grown, and I get what I can from my farmer's market and the local co-op or organicy stores. That said, I remember that most of human history has had purely local food, and that this leaves you hostage to local weather. Large-scale trade in energy and water, or their products, food, lets us average out local variations and is a big win in avoiding famines. Also, I really like citrus, dates, and bananas. Hard to grow those locally. Back to John: Does "pasture-raised" in the new guidelines mean "they eat grass"? Like "access to pasture", one can still envision animals which are allowed to roam around but are fed big piles of grain. Have you considered a "100% grass-fed" product line as well, along with the animals which are still finished on grain?

Neal McBurnett says …

John, you've asked twice now for Pollan to give you more credit for Whole Food's work on the "organic" front. This demonstrates that you're missing major aspects of his most excellent book. It's not about organic, its about perspective and diversity of opinion. His goal is to tell the truth about where our food comes from, and to encourage people to make their own informed choices based on that knowledge. He's generally promoting education and diversity, rather than picking winners. He points out that globalized "industrial organic" is sometimes in conflict with localized markets and bottom-line environmental benefits. Yes there are many huge benefits in what you've done. Congratulations! And Pollan says many good things about Whole Foods. But there are costs to your approach also. So don't expect everyone else to believe that your way is the only way to a sustainable future! Don't repeatedly demand that he trumpet the way you've grown the "organic" approach. Remember not everyone thinks it should be preferred to "local", and many even think it is actually government regulation headed in the wrong direction. And don't castigate a journalist for doing a great job letting people know about some of the complexity and diversity of the choices out there! For example, you explain the challenges of satifying customers that want to buy asparagus in January and beef in the spring. You are of course free to serve that market, and there may be benefits for other countries. But don't criticize Pollan for informing consumers what a terrible habit that is, and how much more sustainable it is to live off the seasonal bounty of their own bioregion. And don't take rude jabs at "fringe" coop markets that have been struggling to get that particular point across for decades. At the same time, thanks for working hard to address many important issues. Neal McBurnet

Valerie Ross says …

I arrived at this blog after reading a snarky column this morning by Joe Nocera in the Business Section of NY Times, in which Nocera maintains that Mackey's emphasis throughout is on value, because WF's customers are value-driven -- which is to say, we shop at WF because it makes us feel good about ourselves in some fashion (as vegans, or animal rights people, or parents feeding our children good food, or people who care about local or third world farmers, or the environment, or people who like to think they're eating high quality food). Nocera's is a weird argument, suggestive of the way in which late capitalism has appropriated and sullied ethics itself: so that to have "values" and to act upon them is itself objectionable! Frightening, and insidious (one hears the same argument about community service: "she's only doing it to make herself feel good": the implication, unquestioned, being that doing things that make you feel good is a bad thing, or at least is a bad thing if what you are doing is in some way good for others). But I digress. What I wanted to say is that this exchange between Mr. Pollan and Mr. Mackey, as well as many of the others who posted here, is inspiriting: the exchange of ideas and information, the opportunity to actually discuss (with civiity) our shared and differing interests and concerns, the possibility of finding a position across differences that we can live with--if not necessarily reach full consensus on--and the possibiity that this exchange might actually mean something -- have a real effect -- thanks to Mr. Mackey's willingness to test his own position, respond to rather than spin Mr. Pollan's work, and lo and behold a person who is in a position to effect change: how often does that happen? Between this and Warren Buffett's redistribution of wealth (let's hope Bill Gates doesn't squander the opportunity: where's his blog?) well, maybe there's reason to hope. I am by the way a WF shopper, have been for ten years, and for all the reasons Nocera suggests -- to which I will now add another: this blog, rich with promise.

Shankar Ramaswamy says …

Dear John, My family and I have been ardent and enthusiastic supporters of the organic foods movement and Whole foods for several years now and have cheerfully paid a premium for our groceries. We have been ridiculed by our extended families and friends for being so foolish as to spend so much more on groceries. However, our belief in the organic farming ideals and our trust in the system have kept us going. Of late, our trust in the system has definitely been wearing down. The USDA organic label is definitely not something we trust because we know these standards were influenced by big money. The high margins enjoyed by Organic products are clearly attracting large corporations driven by one thing and one thing only - the bottomline. These guys pretending to truly care about organic farming is all hogwash. While we recognize the historic significance of Whole Foods and its role in promoting organic farming, our trust in your brand has seriously eroded - we see you as beholden to Wall Street and not to us the customers. For example, I do not see why you continue to sell Horizon products - in fact, I can no longer find Organic Valley milk at our local Whole foods. All this has caused us to seriously lower the level of shopping we do at Whole foods. We used to regulary spend $1000-$1200 a month at our local Whole foods; lately, we spend maybe $200-$400 there. We now patronize a local co-op and a regional Organic grocer who we trust much more than Whole foods. If you are taking steps to address concerns of customers like us, then you are not doing job of communicating what these steps and how they mitigate our concerns. Regards, shankar

Ashley says …

John Mackey, I could easily write you a pages upon pages of my gratitude to you, but I figure you're considered one of the top CEOs out there, you may want something more direct and brief. I live in New Orleans, and I work in the bakery at the Arabella Station. Although, our store could not begin to compete with your Austin, Lamar, and Manhatten locations in beauty and perhaps even in consistency at times, we are a major focal point in New Orleans' uptown community. We were the first grocery store to open post-Katrina in the uptown area, which meant a lot to the locals. A Katrina-victim myself, I wanted to thank you for all that you've provided me. I lost my home. I lost a year out of my undergrad college career, but thanks to Terek (our store team leader) and you (the most humble, rich hippie around), you've provided me an opportunity to rebuild my life. My friends at Whole Foods and the positive work environment (in comparison to what's available to college students in the area), as well as feeling like an asset to the rebuilding process of my beloved city, has motivated me and inspired me in ways that have changed me into a stronger person. You may have recieved thanks from us down here before, but it's been over half a year, and we're still in the beginning of the aftermath in so many ways... and I felt compelled to let you know how much easier you're making it for so many us out here. So much of the familiarity of my life before the storm is gone. My one concern when getting home was to return to work to see people I hadn't see in months, to occupy myself from thinking about my loss, and also to merely know that the only job I've ever looked forward to was still there for me when I got back. It followed through. If you ever find your way to New Orleans, you'll probably recieve quite the overwhelming welcoming. Thank you! Much love from the Arabella Station, still going strong(er)! Ashley

Deborah Howard says …

John: I have problems with a true vegan making money from the lives of animals. Killing animals, including fish, for consumption is wrong from an ethical standpoint. So, perhaps you are only a vegan for health reasons. When your store first opened in Fort Collins, CO, I was disgusted by the live lobsters and shocked that you would even consider selling them. And they were situated near the produce area. I couldn't even look in the direction of the seafood section. At least, you came to your senses on this issue. What I really have a problem with - and I should mention that I travel all over the country and have been to numerous Whole Food stores - is the horrible waste of produce. In an attempt to create a "farmers market," your stores pile up way too much produce, and most of it is overpriced. I don't know how many times I have discovered moldy fruit either before or after purchase. In fact, one time, I didn't see the very small black spots on raspberries and my mouth swelled almost all the way shut (I am allergic to mold). And most people, unless they live in sophisticated culinary cities like L.A., San Francisco or NY, aren't familiar with unusual items like heirloom tomatoes. It really bothers me to watch these beautiful tomatoes become mushy. I can't even begin to imagine how many get tossed. So, the truth is: you have too much produce; it is overpriced; it doesn't turn over quickly enough and therefore has to thrown out. Even if you are composting all this produce, which I doubt your stores are doing, it is a horrible waste of food. Sincerely, Deborah A Howard President Companion Animal Protection Society

PHM says …

Dear Mr. Mackey, I gather from your excellent exchange with Mr. Pollan that WFM is moving towards offering grassfed meat. I am in the middle of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and bought my first grassfed meats recently; however, I'm paying $55 to have a couple pounds of chuck and 2 6 oz. filets fed-ex'd to my house. I just shopped at the St. Louis WFM today and the meat counter clerk that WFM does not carry grassfed meat. Sounds like that may change soon. I hope so! Thanks in advance for making it happen. You, sir, are a credit to the captains of capitalism. Perhaps WFM's success will cause more corporate chiefs to care as deeply about their companies' impact on the environment and humanity. All the best.

John Mackey says …

Hi Shankar Ramaswamy, Some clarifications: 1. If you want to purchase Organic Valley at our stores, simply buy our private label. Organic Valley is the brand name of CROPP Cooperative. 100% of our organic private label milk for our 365 Organic line comes from CROPP (which is the exact same network of farmers that Organic Valley uses). See the CROPP website for more information: 2. I'm sorry you've lost your trust in Whole Foods Market and now prefer shopping at co-ops and other natural food stores. I'm not sure, however, why you no longer trust our company as we continue to fulfill our mission statement and core values as faithfully today as we did 26 years ago when Whole Foods began with our first store in Austin. 3. Regarding Horizon Organic Dairy products, I want to share with you the report Margaret Wittenberg wrote after our recent visit to Horizon's large company owned farm in Idaho in May. Margaret, Walter Robb, and myself carefully toured this farm that has been the subject of so much criticism by organic activists. I agree 100% with Margaret's report: Organic Dairy Inspection May 2006 We’ve all been inundated with passionate emails and “press releases” from The Cornucopia Institute and The Organic Consumer Association, making a variety of negative accusations about Horizon as a large scale, factory feedlot dairy farm and urging the boycott of Horizon dairy products. Interestingly enough, none of the accusers have ever actually visited Horizon’s Idaho facility. So, to finally set the record straight, John Mackey, Walter Robb, and I went to Horizon’s Idaho dairy farm, the operation most hotly being criticized, on May 15th to see for ourselves. Here’s what we found: Horizon Dairy The Horizon dairy includes grazing pasture, milking parlor, loafing sheds with exercise area, maternity/dry cow area (where cows getting ready to give birth are staged and monitored), heifer raising pastures, a large compost site, and cropland where they raise most of their forage crops that uses the compost developed on site. All Horizon cows have daily access to pasture. Their heifers graze on pasture all day long and each of their lactating cows is on pasture but only for a couple hours per day. The pasture was of very good quality and their commitment to quality pasture is underscored with their engagement with the “Holistic Grazing Management” program started last fall. This program, based on the innovative work of Allan Savory, is based on the concept that grazing animals and grasses are symbiotic. Using a whole farm/whole system approach, including an intensive pasturing schedule, the grazing system emulates how buffalo used to graze on prairie land in which the animals graze in a small area for a day or two, making sure the plants aren’t taken down to far, and are then moved into the next paddock to allow the grass to recover more quickly. When managed holistically, bio-diversity and soil cover is increased, grazing days and forage are increased, water retention and depth is improved, nutrient cycling is improved, and animals are healthier. When the lactating cows are not on pasture or being milked, they are in the loafing shed/exercise area which consists of a an open-air, covered loafing shed lined with fresh bedding that is changed daily, surrounded by an exercise area for the cows to move around or just hang out. Additional exercise includes walking to and fro to the pasture paddock as well as walking to the milking parlor a couple times a day. All the cows looked very healthy. It was very evident they were comfortable around people—one of the gauges of quality of care and health— as they all came up to surround us and the vehicles we drove into the pastures when we got out of the truck to look at them and the pasture. All the key workers live on site in company-provided housing to ensure 24/7 care and attentiveness. Another example of excellent care is that they check their calving cows every 40 minutes around the clock, considered one of the most critical times of a cow’s life. Beginning in September all their replacement heifers will be born and raised on site. While, overall, we were pleasantly surprised that what we saw at Horizon’s Idaho dairy was very different than what their detractors claimed, there’s no question that their lactating cows should have the opportunity for more access to pasture, extending the couple hours to all day. At this time the National Organic Standards don’t officially require anything other than the non-committal “access to pasture”, but Whole Foods Market has been very public with our support, including our presentation at the USDA’s recent organic dairy symposium, of the National Organic Standards Board’s proposal to create more stringent, explicit standards that specify that organic dairy is truly pasture-based. Ironically, Horizon’s opponents never mention that Horizon, too, has supported the NOSB’s proposals and have had that message on their website for months. In terms of putting verbal and written support into practice, the good news is that Horizon has already purchased and seeded double the land so that all cows will be able to graze simultaneously during the growing season. A completely separate second state-of-the-art dairy is also being constructed so Horizon will have two milking parlors on their Idaho dairy site to accommodate a comfortable walking distance for all their lactating cows. They also intend to use this new dairy as a training facility for their family farmers to visit and get additional ideas. Other background important to know: A little publicized fact from those who criticize Horizon is that 80% of their organic milk supply is from 340 family farms, with 200 more family farms they are helping with the transition to organic. They have a dedicated staff that works 1-on-1 with all their organic and transitioning to organic family farms through a program they call HOPE (Horizon Organic Producer Education). Related to this program, throughout the last 5 years they have contributed $15-20 million in financial assistance to help with education and greater awareness to their family farmers about organic agriculture, guidance through transition and certification, and assistance with helping improve and develop best practices through the assistance of dairy and land conservations experts. All, in all, John, Walter, and I believe the sale of Horizon organic dairy products remains as an acceptable, good option for our stores and regions to consider if it works within the region’s organic dairy set plans. End of the report. I want to conclude this post by saying that some of the concern by organic activists regarding factory farm organic dairies is solidly grounded. There are in existence some "organic" factory farm dairies in production today that have no real commitment to either animal welfare or pasture access. They are simply commercial dairies using organic feed. Whole Foods remains passionately opposed to these types of organic factory farms and we do not buy any milk from these farms (although many of our competitors do). Whole Foods has been both vocal and active in lobbying for much stricter standards concerning pasture access for all organic dairy cows. In addition, in 2007 we will create our animal compassion standards for dairy cows and the pasture requirements under this standard will be far, far higher than any organic standards anywhere in the world.

Pattie says …

Joe Nocera's column in this past Saturday's New York Times raised some interesting questions about "the organic cause" and whether or not large retailers, including Whole Foods, are helping or hurting the organic cause. The column includes details about an exchange between Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. The issue at hand is that the popularity of organics has caused the proliferation of large-scale commercial farms, albeit organic, plus the increase in importation of organic produce. I'd like to make a couple comments about this issue. 1. Maintaining "the nature and spirit of organics" is an unfair burden to place on retailers who are responding to market demand for what consumers want--which is increasingly organics. Certified organic is now a legal term that includes certain requirements. Local is not one of them. If you want your organic food to be local (which reduces transport time, increases the ability for diversity, decreases fuel use, and provides a positive impact to the local economy), then you have to demand that. If you want the organic label to include a local or small farm component, then you have to fight for it, or help in the development of a "beyond organics" labeling option. 2. Whole Foods has done wonders, and I admire John Mackey's commitment to responding to consumers--it was through an exchange with a determined activist about the treatment of ducks that caused Mackey to launch the now-established Animal Compassion Program at Whole Foods. I believe that if we as consumers demand more local produce at Whole Foods, Mackey will find a way to provide it. Ask. And make it clear that by local, you don't mean from three states away. You mean local. Within your foodshed. Mr. Mackey, if you are reading this, please know that people are pushing you not because you haven't already done so much good but because they know you are the rare combination of idealist and entrepreneur who can truly make things happen. And Mr. Nocera, thank you for raising awareness about the many issues intertwined in the commercialization of organics.

CHARLES M says …

This blog is so interesting, one of the revelations by John is actually having a copy cat effect by WFM competition and wonder if Micheal is being used to get WFM marketing strategies: The competitor just revealed its sourcing strategy which is more of what was discussed under this blog:

Josh says …

Mr. Mackey: Thanks for this excellent and thought provoking discussion. I'm very impressed with your willingness to respond to criticism, and think it's a unique asset for your company. While I agree and admire most of what you say, however, I do have a few questions and issues about your reply. First, you don't directly answer Pollan's questions. He asks you, "As a percentage of sales (rather than of vendors), how much of the produce sold at Whole Foods is produced locally?" Your reply to the section with this question is 814 words long and addresses issues of the size and nature of the farms and is quite interesting, but I don't think you answered the question. I think it's a fair one...perhaps I just didn't see your specific reply. So what's the number? Same for Pollan's second 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?" This reply is a laundry list of Whole Foods affiliated local farms in the Bay Area, but again, there's no simple answer to the question. Judging by the fact that these questions aren't addressed until the "exciting new initiatives" section, presumably the answer is, "at the time of your writing, no there weren't. But that's a good point and one that we're addressing." Finally, you take Pollan to task for not contacting you before criticizing you and write (somewhat condescendingly) about subjectivity and bias. But you use an approach very similar to his in your discussion on Horizon Dairy. I confess to knowing next to nothing about the controversy, but do you think that representatives from Whole Foods are the best people to determine whether or not Horizon Dairy is treating their animals well? Presumably Whole Foods makes a good deal of money from sales of Horizon's products, and have an interest in seeing healthy, happy cows. From your post on the issue, it seems like you relied on your visit to Horizon, some background information from other sources, and your vast expertise and experience to come up with a view that was unbiased as possible. This seems similar to what you negatively characterize Pollan doing in his book. Did you contact the activists to get their side of the story before writing your post? Given what I know about you from your writing on this blog, I can decide that I can trust your observations despite any biases, and I feel people can make that same choice about Pollan's characterization of Whole Foods given the context of his book. Thanks again for the discussion. I'm a Whole Foods customer and will continue to be. I just think that the issues raised in this post are valid and worth answering in a straightforward manner.

Tracy says …

John, Wow, what a mouthgasmic exchange! I briefly returned to the philosophical contemplation that plants must experience emotion. The two of you are so passionate about food, agriculture, and the culture of consumption you instantaneously gave all food EGO and a sense of vulnerability that is immeasureable. A brief visit to your blog has given me a newfound appreciation of what Whole Foods lives and breaths. Never in 14 years working for the competition have I seen or experienced this type of open and authentic quest for the truth and its impact on our ever EXPANDING corn syrup culture. It's apparent that you completely understand that vulnerability leads to trust. I happened upon this deligthful morsel as I was perusing your job postings (I will continue to peruse). Keep feeding your essence, it's growing up quite nicely....I trust you a little more because you are willing to expose yourself and I probably won't be so focused on the displays, # of organics, price, merchandising techniques, fixtures, signage, or occasional body odor. I probably won't fall back my subjective retail experience as my only reference point. I will simply bring to my SHOPPING EXPERIENCE my expectations, beliefs, biases, world views, and my check card; as these serve as perceptual filters that tremendously influence my purchases and now I just feel like shopping with you! You said it yourself - your essence, your leadership, your company has paved the way for organics thus enabling more of us to choose organic. You are in a sense the leader of the reformation and I thank you!! Tracy

Chris Adams says …

As a New Zealander I wanted to offer my comments on the issue of the sustainability, economics and ethics of sourcing produce from overseas countries such as New Zealand. Sustainable production, minimal impact on the environment and a global food marketplace are not mutually exclusive. New Zealand agriculture enjoys an ideal, temperate climate where little irrigation is required, there are strong environmental protections, animals are grass fed outdoors year round and cropping is maximized without the need of genetic engineering. The country also has the smallest level of distorting farmer support, subsidies or tariff protections in the developed world. Indeed buying beef or produce from New Zealand may not only offer a better price and quality - but is likely better on the environment that purchasing the same product from just down the road where irrigation is required, animals need to be housed in doors in winter and the farmer is subsidized or protected to stay in business. The difference in shipping the crop across the world is likely to be a relatively insignificant impact relative to these broader production issues. In the regard local farming does not necessarily mean better or sustainable farming. Finally and without a hint of bias I can also say that Kiwis are nice people and we need the work ! Chris Adams.

Phil Oppenheim says …

Thank you for posting this...fascinating.

John Mackey says …

Hi Josh, 1. 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. 2. The answer to your second question is that we are in the process of changing job descriptions and responsibilities to make sure that there are designated team members responsible for sourcing local product. They will be empowered to buy directly from local farmers. They will seek to buy as competitively as possible in order to get the best prices possible for our customers. 3. Regarding your third point: I have talked to a number of organic activists regarding organic dairy (and other organic issues). I'm well aware of "their side of the story" regarding Horizon. I also heard Horizon's side of the story. I then went and looked for myself and drew my own conclusions. I honestly don't know what more I could have done. I have no attachment or bias towards Horizon as a company. If Horizon was actually operating the organic factory farms that it has been criticized for operating then I would say so and Whole Foods would transition away from Horizon. We don't need to sell Horizon. There are other organic dairy suppliers we buy from. As I have already pointed out, there are organic factory farm dairies in operation that violate the spirit of the organic dairy standards. I've seen them. I don't like them and Whole Foods doesn't buy from them. Horizon doesn't fall into this category in my opinion. They are being unfairly attacked in my opinion. I believe the company has a sincere commitment to having their cows on pasture and ensuring animal welfare. I don't think Horizon is guilty of any crimes simply because they are a large and successful corporation. Neither success nor the corporate form of organization are crimes in my ethics. In contrast to my talking to various organic activists, Horizon leadership, and investigating Horizon in person, Pollan didn't talk to Whole Foods leadership. He didn't actually seek to understand "our side of the story". That is a simple fact not really open to dispute or alternative interpretation. I'm sorry if you think I was condescending in criticizing Pollan. That certainly wasn't my intention. I think my comments on this subject are both fair and accurate.

Josh says …

Mr. Mackey: I really appreciate you answering my questions and found your responses fair, straightforward, and convincing. It seems like you've helped to create consumers who demand to know more about the products they buy. I hope that you take it as a measure of success that people are asking tough questions of you and Whole Foods, and I can't tell you how admirable I think it is that you're willing to hold yourself up to the scrutiny you've helped to foster. Best, and thanks again for this discussion, Josh

Elizabeth McInerney says …

Whole Foods has developed a reputation for excellence by banning artifical colors, flavors, lobster, tacky magazines, etc, from stores. Why not ban animal products from producers who fail to meet YOUR compassionate animal standards as well? I fail to buy the comparison to your decision to offer both conventional and organic produce/grains. You do not offer products containing artifical colors side-by-side with those containing natural colors. I can't imagine a better way to promote pasture-based farms than to give them exclusive access to your customer base. And if doing so creates temporary shortages, certainly a vegan such as John Mackey is in a postion to promote/offer temporary alternatives (there are no alternatives to produce and grains). There is no question in my mind that a stand for pasture-based farming is worth the financial risk (real or imagined) to your organization. Only one question remains. Do you have the courage to take it?

Chuck Hawks says …

I must say that this has been quite the interesting dialog and I appreciate the authors' (John and Michael) willingness for open and candid discussion. And one to which my post has gotten just as long as any of yours, John, now that I look at it in "Preview"... LOL We do not have a WFM in the Charlotte, NC area (yet - I recently heard there is a possibility now) and aside from the cultural and stereotypical slander on the "Whole Paycheck" theme, I have until now (having spent several hours on this site reading letters and posts) been grossly ignorant to the WFM model, mission and philosophy. With that being said John, I formally request that you do come to the Charlotte market (especially the South Charlotte area!) as my wife and I will not only be shoppers/supporters, we will be advocates, actively marketing your store and philosophy to all we can when appropriate. I am very impressed with what I see. It is intriguing to me that what we now call "organic farming food supplication" is basically what we as a species came from. The fact that it is now (apparently way) more expensive to produce food products in a 'natural' way (vs. a mass produced, chemically and/or genetically engineered way) is quite the ironic travesty that only a society as modern, self-centered and short-sighted as ours could possibly create. Welcome to mass consumerism, big business, and huge populations I suppose, eh? The fact that John, WFM, Michael and others like them are creating such integral approaches to solving the woes manifested by such consumerism is beyond promising... it's quite heartening. I applaud you. Especially your integral vision into creating such solutions as the growing WFM model, John. Should you read this - if you are not already familiar with the work of Ken Wilber, Integral Institute, and others who play in that realm, I highly suggest you check them out as I think you will like what you find. Ken's got tons of books, blogs, etc. to his credit or based on his work - just Google him, or contact me and I can point you in the appropriate direction for your interests, should you desire. My point is I know of few who look at their industry from such a broad viewpoint or altitude and actually GET INVOLVED at a global level. It is all too easy to recognize the problems at that scope and then pine for a solution or implementation without acting upon that recognition, potentially waiting for someone else to do it instead. You sir, appear to be one of those in action. That gains my respect and loyalty as a consumer, a constituent, and fellow human being. The fact that you have been able to take the WFM model this far and thrive as a business is nothing short of amazing. And no, corporations are NOT a bad thing! They are a GREAT thing when led properly, ethically and responsibly. From a business standpoint, I would encourage you to welcome competition in your space. Collaborate with what may appear as 'competition', for it is only through such collaboration that GLOBAL change will occur. The more grocery chains who actually jump on the proverbial bandwagon that you seem to be so deftly guiding, the better! The more in the model, the more consumers that actually get served and raise the awareness of other consumers, formulating a shift in consumerism as a whole and thereby benefiting ALL and the planet itself. And incidentally, I mean way bigger than providing space for parking lot farmers' markets (which, by the way IS over-the-top commitment - I almost fell out of my chair when I read that! INCREDIBLE - THANK YOU!!!) I mean fostering a change in the way our food is supplied across the board by inviting others to play in your space. I know you think about and stand for changing the way agribusiness gets done. What if your 'competition' did too? If just three more major grocery chains implemented the integrity and dedication to local/organic food production and delivery that you/WFM do, what difference would that make in this country's food production model overall? What difference would it make in the health of our citizens? What difference would it make on the agriculture industries that supply groceries like yours with products (globally?) It's not my intention to propose to take money out of your coffers - you have a business to run, indeed. Simply to state that change en-mass only occurs when change agents amass. Through collaborative-competition models, you CAN throw out the stale bath water AND keep the clean baby. :-) Again, I applaud what you stand for, what you've created, where you're headed, and your willingness to let us all in on your thoughts and conversations with others who are as committed to making a difference in what ever way they see is appropriate. With greatest appreciation (and anticipation for your arrival in my area!), Chuck Hawks

Chuck Hawks says …

OK, I just found your keynote. Too funny! Integral seemed so familiar because it was... Fantastic concept for a keynote! I would love to have seen the look on the faces of your audience before, during and after the delivery of such a presentation. Being a professional speaker myself, I have to admit that seeing that transition from the front of the room is one of the greater joys of my life. I am impressed that you view your company as being at a yellow vMEME. Wow. That's about all I can say for now. It is great to see yet another powerful company with integral-aware leadership. A very good thing, indeed. If there is any way I can support you in your mission John, please do not hesitate to contact me. It would be an honor to work with you as your Coach (what I do.) This is not intended as an ad, as it's always an honor to work with someone who understands where I'm coming from. It just came out while I was typing... It's not my intent to solicit my business but to honor yours. Please build a store in the Balantyne area of Charlotte - hint, hint! :-) Now THAT's a solicitation & a request! LOL Cheers & Be Well, C

hugh schick says …

As a private chef in Marin County, CA I cater to the a uniquely wealthy clientele that demands gourmet cuisine prepared from the freshest ingredients. As this blog illustrates, there is no shortage of exquisite organic ingredients / farms in the area; in fact, I have never lived anywhere with a more astounding food supply. Whole Foods is, without question, my favorite chain in which to shop for these clients. The produce is of consistently high quality. I applaud Mr. Mackey's effort and vision in providing consumers with a superior if occasionally more expensive option (you get what you pay for). I have a few comments to interject in this debate that grow out of my years as a chef and my fascination with all matters related to food sourcing. Beyond wasting fuel on long-distance importation and bypassing local asparagus growers, another consideration needs to come into play in choosing suppliers for Whole Foods or for that matter, any grocer regardless of size. The primary concern of the consumer that opts to pay a premium for organic food is health. Garbage in, garbage out, or conversely, eat well and prosper. Most devotees of the Whole Foods lifestyle know that eating well makes you feel more energetic, calmer, and healthier. In organic products, they expect more vitality, purity, superior flavor, and freshness that at least rivals if not surpasses that of the non-organic alternatives . Before the huge corporate takeover or lack thereof that ruined / saved the organics industry ( guys can argue that one all day ), you might remember that a lot of organic produce available for public consumption was hideous, wooden, and/or deformed in appearance and devoid of flavor. I always assumed that this was because demand had not (yet) reached critical mass .... organics were percieved as being for ascetics and weirdos with food "issues." I only eat sushi (sorry vegetarians / vegans, please bear with me) if the place I'm going looks really busy....otherwise I assume the same type of thing. If there's not sufficient demand for a product, it can't be purchased fresh enough for me to want to eat it (or serve it). Today, thanks to the excellent work of Mr. Mackey and WFM, the volume of organics sold is now sufficient to guarantee that the supply (at least of popular fruits/vegetables like greens and carrots) is of a quality, texture, and flavor that rival the non-organic alternatives. Which brings us back to sourcing. Let's remember the reason people buy organics: to feel good. To be healthy. Because they imply freshness and purity. This is why people hire me; I shop an hour or two before a meal , chop up everything at the last second, because I know that eating food prepared that way makes you feel incredible. In the Indian tradition, this is known as prana. Food contains a vital energy that dissipates rapidly after it is harvested. If you eat everything as fresh as possible, you will be energized. If you eat leftovers or stale foods, your body will be clogged up and polluted by a meal rather than nourished. Thus, the debate about food sourcing should, I believe, take into consideration the nutritive value of the organic food that is sold. I can sense the absolute sincerity of Mr.Mackey for his mission (which is why I'm not going to bust his chops about agribusiness), and I believe that this sincerity should extend to providing an organic product that is truly fresh / healthful. In essence, I would love to see the freshest, most vibrant organic produce possible, wherever it's grown. Logic would dictate that WF would most likely fulfill this by increasing reliance on local suppliers. I'd guess the offending asparagus was old, being from abroad, but I imagine it's possible for a foreign product to be fresher / superior if handled carefully and flown in hastily. Mr Mackey, I ask that you consider the following questions in developing your improved approach to sourcing: Is an organic product good enough to compete w/ the non-organic alternative? If not, it does little to further the movement / make converts. Is the product fresh? Though it's local in origin, does it take a circuitous route to your store, losing vitality in the process? Perhaps WF should directly form its own network of small-farm suppliers to ensure efficiency / freshness. Even if a product meets organic standards (related to use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers), is it healthful? What type of water is used to irrigate the crops? Municipal water one wouldn't drink is routinely used on organic farms...... Have you ever driven past a top-notch wine country vineyard and seen all the automobile exhaust settling on grapes / vines 10 feet from the road? I applaud Whole Foods for giving us an opportunity to discuss these topics....again, without their immense success, the organics movement would still be marginal. I am encouraged by Mr. Mackey's public commitment to answering his critics in a constructive way. By reacting to the Pollan critique with a list of new policies, Mr. Mackey makes it clear that he's interested in more than the bottom line. By the way, Mr. Mackey, I have been attempting to discuss two ground-breaking ventures with your local management team but have found them a bit overwhelmed: despite initial enthusiasm for my ideas they have been very hard to reach. Perhaps due to your rapid expansion they are short on time. I am not at liberty to discuss these projects in a public forum, for obvious reasons. I would love to share these ideas with you, as they relate directly to the debate at hand and would go a long way to demonstrate your ccommitment to increasing commerce with local suppliers. I assure you it would be worth your time to hear me out. Thank you for the opportunity to express my two cents! Sincerely, Hugh Schick Private Chef Mill Valley, CA

J says …

This is an interesting discussion. Though clearly not short of words, Mr. Mackey's failed to provide a specific statistic asked for by Mr. Pollan: "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?" If Mr. Mackey's interest is in being transparent, this information should be provided, otherwise one assumes there is a reason it is being hidden.

brandon says …

Whether Pollan should have contacted Whole Foods management or not (does a restaurant critic always talk to the chef or owners before reviewing what's on his plate?) I think it has generated a discussion many times more powerful than if he had. I find it all very invigorating and I offer kudos to John Mackey for not merely defending his postion but taking the offensive and reforming the way Whole Foods plans to source its food in the future. P.S. Don't turn Whole Foods vegan just yet...the amazing taste and healthfulness of grass fed beef will bring back a lot of converts.

Suzanne says …

Excellent discussion. The more people who engage in this debate, the healthier our bodies and our communities become. I just want to say thank you, too, to Ashley and others who make shopping at the Arabella Station store in New Orleans my favorite Whole Foods ever. (I've been to quite a few.) It isn't the biggest store, or the one with the biggest selection, but it is the most delightful place I've ever bought groceries. Thank you to all of you. I posted about this great exchange on my health blog: Mr. Mackey, please keep up your commitment to raising standards, for animals, for produce, for humans. You have some of the most savvy customers in the industry. Keep working to keep us. Suzanne

Clement Roberts says …

Dear Mr. Mackey, Like many others here, I sincerely appreciate your discussion with Mr. Pollan and your obvious desire to have Whole Foods live its principles. I would like you to know that I try very hard to buy compassionately raised animals and very much look forward to seeing labels in your stores identifying animals raised under your new compassion standards (which, to my untrained eye, look quite sincere and reasonable). If you don't mind, I would like to make a suggestion--namely that you consider adding fish to the list of animals for which you are developing new standards. Obviously, fish that are raised in the wild do not need a compassion standard (although perhaps there are some relevant differences in the pain inflicted via various methods of capture). However, there are (as I am sure you know) enormous ecological and social implications to the way fish are caught and/or produced. It seems to me that it would be a worthwhile endeavor to develop a comprehensive set of "environmental standards" for the capture and production of various species -- in order to prevent overfishing, by-catch, the destruction of mangrove forests, and to encourage small scale fishermen etc. As I noted, I pay a great deal of attention to these issues and try very hard to only buy fish from sustainable fisheries and that are caught using methods that minimize by-catch (I also sometimes buy organically farmed tilapia and farm raised caviar etc). But: (a) I do not possess the necessary expertise or volume of information to consistently know which fish in your case best meets my environmental concerns; (b) the folks behind your counters often do not have sufficiently detailed knowledge to be able to answer my questions and (c) as you have noted, part of your mission is to educate consumers generally. In short, I ask you to consider developing a set of environmental guidelines for fish and then (as you are planning to do with the "compassion guidelines" for domestic animals) label fish that conform to these standards in your stores. Thank you very kindly for your consideration.