Last week I decided to quit Whole Foods as a regular. I was once a loyalist, defending them against the ‘Whole Foods Whole Paycheck’ naysayers. My weekly shop at the Union Square location was routine, and I confess to knowing the layout probably better than some of the staff. But lately, the haute grocery chain, known to be synonymous with the organic movement, has me rattled. And I don’t seem to be alone. Last month, Whole Foods reported a drop in sales, marking a 6th consecutive quarter of decline.
So what gives? How has the store that put kale on the map and encouraged us to rethink our food supply, found itself in this precarious position? Why are shoppers turning their backs?
Most explanations point toward competition from Wal-Mart, the world’s largest grocery retailer, who recently threw their hat into the organic ring, commoditizing organic food and offering lower prices. But Wal-Mart’s customer-base are hardly the affluent kale loving types who roam the aisles at Whole Foods.
The truth is – Whole Foods may not be as wholesome as the practices they preach.
Problem #1: Contrary to popular belief, not everything at Whole Foods is Organic
Let’s start here. The chain who has made millions riding the coattails of the organic movement, is not exclusively organic. As someone who’s shopped here for several years, I can say the produce section is almost always skewed in favor of non-organic options. The high cost of buying from organic farmers, or a lack of thereof, gives rise to this constraint.
Yet, if you walk into any Whole Foods, you are welcomed by bright banners cheerleading the movement: ‘Reasons To Buy Organic’.
The only real transparency comes from the FAQ’s section of their website. But even then, the simple question ‘Is everything at Whole Foods organic?’ is answered in riddles. Despite acknowledging it is not 100% organic, Whole Foods swiftly goes on to deliver a vague explanation about ‘Quality Standards for the products we offer’. A simple no would have sufficed.
Problem #2: Is Animal Welfare really a priority, or just clever marketing?
Whole Foods is big on promoting their humanely raised and handled meat. They even have a 5 tier rating certification administered by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP).
Meat is sold with a label denoting a number from one to five. A one means that minimum conditions are met (No cages, No Crates, No Crowding). A five indicates that the animal was treated like a VIP. The problem with this approach is that the definitions underlying the scores are not necessarily a true reflection of what constitutes welfare. A score of one, for instance, does not mean the cow was grass fed or that the grass itself was pesticide free. Yet customers are skillfully mislead into paying a premium because such labels exist in the first place.
To make matters worse, only 0.5% of farms enrolled in the certification met the gold standard level 5, in contrast to a whopping 61% meeting the basic levels 1 to 3.
Against the facts, it’s hard to deny the hypocrisy underpinning the welfare play.
Problem #3: Price fixing scandals
In 2015, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, uncovered systematic overcharging for pre-packaged foods across the city’s Whole Food stores. Whole Foods was forced to apologize despite maintaining the charges were genuine errors. But the previous year, they were forced to pay out $800,000 in fines to Californian cities where similar price fixing violations were found.
True Errors or True Lies?
Whole Foods is not ‘wholier’ than thou
When you consider that Whole Foods has built its fortune on organic food, ethical food standards, and catering to a socially conscious consumer, they forgot that the very same consumer is also paying attention to price fixing scandals, mislabelling and underwhelming organic options.
I now shop at my local Dagastino’s here in midtown Manhattan. They are basic and expensive but don’t claim to be otherwise. I shop here because I know what I’m paying for.
As always, pushing for health (and honesty).