The people at Whole Foods (WFMI) want you to know that they're mad as hell at the U.S. food system and they're not going to take it anymore. In a campaign called "Let's Retake Our Plates!", Whole Foods rails against the way food scientists have created fake food and turned generations of innocent Americans into "walking food science experiments." It's not exactly a march on Washington, but you get the sense reading the new web site that CEO John Mackey wouldn't mind if it was. The campaign -- clearly a response to heat the chain has taken for straying from its revolutionary roots to become what critics contend is a corporate sellout -- highlights Whole Foods' long-standing rigorous policies, such as barring from the store any artificial ingredients, antibiotics and hormones in meat and unsustainable seafood.
But what the extensive web site and the call-to-arms campaign, which also features free screenings of films like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation, neglect to mention is that some of those very "walking food science experiments" appear on shelves at Whole Foods. Last summer, the eccentric Mackey admitted that the company he helped create now sells "a bunch of junk." And by "junk" perhaps he means some of the stuff Whole Foods sells directly to its customers under its 365 label, like 365 Cosmic Coco's, which are Cocoa Puffs in disguise. Or bags of 365 Cheese Puffs and cans of 365 Cola. How about Annie's Bunny Fruit Snacks, which any kid can unmask as gummy bears?
As Whole Foods pushes towards healthy eating and food reform, the real question is whether it also quietly yanks any of these products from the shelves. To its credit, the company has been smart to respond to past criticism. For instance, after withering attacks by Michael Pollan, the grand pooh-bah of the sustainable food movement, Whole Foods started incorporating more locally-grown produce in its store. And when the store was caught red-faced selling some of the E. coli-contaminated ground beef that sickened people in 2008, it tightened its controls for checking where its suppliers are getting their meat processed. (It turned out that Coleman Natural Foods had started using the Omaha-based Nebraska Beef, a big, low-cost operator that's hit been with more than a few violations.)
Still, Whole Foods has a ways to go if it wants to prove to critics that it hasn't sold off its principles in the latest stock offering. At the recent shareholders' meeting, a collection of labor unions and environmental and food activist groups lambasted the company for, among other things, "greenwashing" non-organic products to make them look like they're organic. And Whole Food's pesky China problem continues to fester since the company still buys organic food -- chiefly frozen vegetables -- from China, whose enforcement of organic standards is dubious.
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