(NaturalNews) Organic food has become the mantra of consumers who are aware of the dangers of pesticides, chemicals and hormones used in the growing and processing practices of the commercial food industry. Many of us have come to trust stores making the implied agreement with us that the food they are selling is largely organic, pure and free from pesticides, chemicals and hormones. We enjoy those stores where we can revel in nature's bounty, enjoy righteous culinary delights, and take home whatever appeals to us because we're sure it's also good for us. Unfortunately, the merger of Whole Foods and Wild Oats may be a signal that it's time to take off the rose colored glasses.
Behind the Merger
It came as no surprise that this merger was allowed even though it effectively wiped out the major competition in the organic market segment. The surprise involved the bizarre, pseudonymous behavior of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey during the six years between the first offer Whole Foods made to acquire Wild Oats, which was rebuffed, and the second offer made in February, 2007.
During those years Mackey posted almost daily on the Yahoo message board for Wild Oats' stock under the name of "Rahodeb" (an anagram of his wife's name). In these posts he belittled Wild Oats whenever its stock price rose, without disclosing who he was. In a post written in March of 2006, Mackey as Rahodeb said, "Whole Foods says they will open 25 stores in OATS territories in the next 2 years. The end game is now underway for OATs... Whole Foods is systematically destroying their viability as a business - market by market, city by city."
These posts were designed to keep down the price of Wild Oats shares. The lower the Wild Oats stock price, the sweeter would be the merger price for Whole Foods. Mackey's efforts to hold down the price may have also helped create pressure by OATS shareholders for their board to accept the depressed bid when it finally came. This sort of conventional commitment to the bottom line belies the feel-good healthy vibes pumped out by the Whole Foods publicity department, and it smacks of the behavior of more traditional corporate scoundrels.
Whole Foods: Image vs. Reality
Mackey has had great success at marketing Whole Foods to the typical affluent, well-educated, liberal organic supermarket customer. This is a lifestyle customer with a need to feel that he or she is contributing to the betterment of himself, mankind and the earth.
But it is harder than ever to make the case that shopping at Whole Foods is socially commendable. Whole Foods has faced well-deserved criticism for the effects it has on the environment, and its employees. In Michael Pollan's bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma, he describes Whole Foods as an "industrial organic" company that has done away with the counter-cuisine and local distribution that were the center of the 1960's back-to-nature movement. As Pollan points out, there is nothing environmentally friendly or health conscious about Whole Food's practice of flying asparagus from Argentina in January.
Whole Foods has responded to criticism by initiating programs to fund low-interest loans to local farmers, and put farmer's market space in their parking lots. Follow-through on this initiative has been minimal although the store windows have been plastered with posters extolling the benefits of eating locally grown foods and spotlighting individual farmers.
But again, as one tours the produce section there is the perception that image and reality are quite different. In displays of largesse, fruits and vegetables are heaped into towering displays. Most of them have tags declaring their points of origin, and these points are California and Mexico for the most part, no matter where the store is located, no matter what the season.
Labor unions are also upset with Mackey. Although the image of the stores is abundance, bounty and the good life, Whole Foods is the second largest union-free food retailer, behind Wal-Mart. In its twenty-seven year history, only its store in Madison, Wisconsin successfully unionized, and that fell apart with no contract to show for the efforts of workers. Whole Foods has taken the position that unions are not valid, and has a pamphlet to give workers titled "Beyond Unions". The chain has also fended off unionizing attempts in Berkeley, California; St. Paul Minnesota; and Falls Church, Virginia.
Quality Standards at Whole Foods
According to the Quality Standards page of the store's website, Whole Foods features products that are "natural", meaning "free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated oils". It does not claim that all their products are free of such ingredients, just the featured products. They claim commitment to foods that are fresh, wholesome and safe to eat. This is the extent of the quality pledge the store makes to its customers. It does not claim that all the foods it sells are organic or free of everything troublesome.
There is an extensive Unacceptable Food Ingredients list posted on the website, and the impression is that these ingredients are not to be found in any foods sold at Whole Foods. Notably missing from this list is any mention of recombinant bovine growth hormone.
The quality standard for meat and poultry is "best tasting, freshest and most wholesome, naturally raised meat available". There is no promise that its meat and poultry is free range, vegetarian fed, rBGH free, pastured or organic, although it does carry some organic meats. The word 'naturally' is not defined, nor does it have an industry standard definition. As applied to meat and poultry it can apparently mean anything from 'free of all chemical additives' to 'not born with two heads'.
For produce the quality standard is "colorful and lovingly stacked". Clearly Whole Foods shines in its variety of fresh organic fruits and vegetables, most of which has come a long distance from large corporate farms. There is little locally grown produce. Along side the organics are colorful and lovingly stacked conventional fruits and vegetables, priced as though they were organic.
Whole Foods conventional produce is grown under the same conditions as produce at the 'regular' supermarkets. This means it may be grown in depleted soil and fertilized with chemical fertilizers. Unless conventional produce is tagged as being pesticide free, it probably isn't. And remember that other countries do not generally have the level of laws restricting the use of extremely toxic chemicals on produce that are in force in the US. Growers will tend to use the most cost effective pesticides rather than the least harmful.
Grocery items including cleaning products, pet foods, dairy and bulk are held to the standard of being "natural". Many grocery items contain organic ingredients. Some of them are formulated identically with items sold at 'regular' stores, but sell at much higher prices.
Many of the canned or boxed items such as, soups, chili, stews, gravies, and prepared frozen or boxed entrees and meals contain MSG although it is on Whole Foods list of unacceptable food ingredients. Because MSG is so ubiquitous in formulations, you can suspect its presence in large numbers of bagged, bottled, frozen or canned foods at all stores including Whole Foods, but it is often hidden under another name. When you see any of these ingredients, you know the product contains MSG:
* Vegetable Protein Extract
* Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
* Autolyzed Vegetable Protein
* Textured Vegetable Protein
* Yeast Extract
* Autolyzed Yeast Extract
* Sodium Caseinate
* Calcium Caseinate
* Soup Base
* Textured Whey Protein
Foods containing these ingredients often contain MSG:
* Malted Barley
* Protein Isolate
* Soy Protein or Soy Protein Isolates
* Rice or Oat Protein
* and anything fermented or modified with enzymes
None of these appear on the unacceptable food ingredients' page. Apparently if it's called something else, MSG is acceptable at Whole Foods.
Dairy products may or may not contain rBGH. The ones that don't are displayed next to the ones that do. Some are organic, some are not.
Bakery items contain no bleached or bromated flour. Many do contain processed white sugar.
Personal care products contain many of the ingredients listed on the unacceptable food ingredients' list. Apparently if it enters your body through the skin instead of the mouth it is okay with them.
The crown jewel of Whole Foods is probably its hot and cold prepared foods. Again, the quality standard for these foods is the nebulous word 'natural'. There are no artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or synthetic preservatives in their prepared foods.
The salad bar contains a few organic items, denoted by red tongs. Most items on the salad bar are conventional, the kind that are found in salad bars everywhere.
The deli dishes as well as those on the hot bar are also made to the 'natural' standard. They contain almost no organic ingredients. Some contain MSG in the form of vegetable/beef/chicken stock, or hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. Many are liberally laced with canola oil.
What it All Means
Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 Company, a huge and highly profitable corporation that owes its allegiance to its shareholders. As every good corporation yearns to do, Whole Foods is exploiting a niche market in which it is the only big player. Since it has cleared the field of major competitors, it is free to raise prices and reduce quality. But if prices go too high or quality too low, another competitor will come along. This is the way of big business. That the schism between image and reality may be less at Whole Foods than at many corporations is of some comfort.
About the author
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.