Behind the Green Grocery


“Natural” food is big business these days, which is a goodthing. Most cities these days have a farmers’ market, and the ag industryis coming to realize that organic food is no longer a matter of sellingmisshapen carrots and potatoes at a premium to hippies, but of tapping ahuge market.

Of course, where there’s a profit, there’s knavery. The new “organic”standards mandated by the USDA have little to do with sound, pesticide-freefarming, and everything to do with false labeling on corporate junk. And,as we shall now relate, the knavery is extending to retail outlets thathave made their reputation and millions of dollars on catering to consumerswho want organic and environmentally friendly produce.

No retail business has exploited this market more profitably than WholeFoods Market, a chain based on Austin, Texas, which operates a hundred storesnationwide and which rings up $1.2 billion a year in sales. The company’smotto is “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet,” and offerscustomers the Whole Foods’ “Declaration of Interdependence,” aphrase lifted from the poet Gary Snyder. Among the assertions in this Declaration:”We are the leader in supporting organic agriculture. We’re committedto protecting the environment. Our shelves are packed with environmentally-friendlyproducts.”

One of the CounterPunch editors occasionally looks in on the Whole Foodsstore in Berkeley, on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph. For a number ofyears the Berkeley left shunned the place because of its anti-union posture.”Interdependence” is not translated by Whole Foods to mean “union.”The store is so bright-eyed with assertions of planetary good works thatthe innately suspicious CounterPunch editor becomes cynical and goes offin search of dowdier establishments purportedly committed to the organicpath. Such suspicions, it turns out, are well-founded.

Earlier this year the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute developeda program to certify shrimp caught by equipment that doesn’t endanger turtles. Knowing Whole Food’s reputation as a marketer of enviro-friendly products,EarthIsland approached the company about selling shrimp that had been certifiedas”turtle safe.” But they were given a cold shoulder by the company,and this rebuff was followed by a direct attack on Earth Island by WholeFoods’ CEO John Mackey.

In an interview in Forbes magazine, Mackey accused Earth Island of “hounding”his company to sell turtle-safe shrimp. He also charged that Earth Islandwast trying to strong-arm Whole Foods into paying a fee for use of the Institute’s”turtle safe” imprimatur. Earth Island strongly rebuts Mackey’sslurs. “This is just not true,” says Teri Shore who is the directorof Earth Island’s turtle-safe shrimp campaign. “Earth Island nevercharged anyone for certification and anyway the shrimp is certified at thepoint of harvest by the fishers, not at the retail level. We were simplyasking Whole Foods Market to make good on its policy of environmental leadershipand offer the shrimp to its customers.”

So far from doing this, Whole Foods has begun offering a “naturalCaribbean shrimp” in packaging that carries a label saying “turtleand environ Island. But whereas Earth Island’s label is backed up by independentship inspectors who certify that the shrimp nets are equipped with turtleexcluder devices, the logo attached to shrimp sold by Whole Foods is basedonly on the company’s own assertions that their operations are environmentallysound.

When Earth Island began to criticize Whole Foods publicly, Mackey senta self-aggrandizing e-mail to Earth Island where he said that “yourattacks on Whole Foods Market are strategic mistakes because you arealienating a company who by its very nature and mission is dedicated tohelping environmental organizations such as your own. However, our desireis to help proactive and non-adversarial environmental organizations whoare above all else committed to the truth (who don’t exaggerate or makemisleading claims for the sake of their own holy cause.’)”


Note Mackey’s emphasis on helping “environmental organizations,”a function which, as CounterPunch readers will know, is often markedlydifferent than helping the environment. So what organization is Whole FoodsMarket helping in this instance? None other than Ocean Trust, which WholeFoods describes as “a marine conservation foundation.” Whole Foodseven disseminates Ocean Trust’s handouts to its customers. As Mackey notedin his email, “they [Ocean Trust] have been instrumental in providingfacts and information for us to buy seafood responsibly with the environment,freshness, and quality all kept in mind. We believe that we are workingwith experts in environmental marine science.”

Ocean Trust is hardly the turtle-friendlyoutfit claimed by Mackey, being little more than a seafood trade organization,with a budget financed almost entirely by the seafood industry. Ocean Trust’sexecutive director (and sole full-time staffer) is Thor Lassen, whose careerhas included a stint as lobbyist for the National Fisheries’ Institute,the seafood industry’s primary trade organization. In 1997 Lassen wasfeatured as prominent speaker at the Wise Use movement’s annual confab inWashington, titled “Fly In for Freedom.” CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.