An Open Letter to John Mackey and Whole Foods


John Mackey,
CEO Whole Foods Market
Austin, Texas

Labor Day  September 7, 2009

Dear John,

Thanks for your letter dated August 26, signed by one of your attorneys, threatening to sue the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), under the bizarre pretence that a petition we’ve been circulating violates your “intellectual property rights.” Given all the bad publicity that you’ve gotten lately for admitting that Whole Foods Market (WFM) retail stores are purveyors of “junk food;” that WFM needs to sell a lot more certified organic products (rather than conventional items greenwashed as “natural”); that WFM’s “365” private label products need to be thoroughly tested for GMO contamination; that you don’t think all Americans deserve government subsidized access to health care; or need labor unions; perhaps you may want to reconsider suing the largest organic consumer watchdog organization in the United States.

A number of our members, as well as journalists, have asked me recently why OCA hasn’t joined in the call for a boycott of Whole Foods Market, since we certainly have called for boycotts of other retail chains (Wal-Mart) and bogus organic dairy brands such as Horizon and Aurora (whose cheap factory farm milk is sold under private label to Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Safeway, and others).

OCA hasn’t yet called for a boycott of WFM because our experience over the past decade is that you will respond to organic consumer pressure, if enough of us raise our voices loudly enough to tarnish your brand image and threaten your bottom line. Obviously this has not been our experience with a number of OCA’s other boycott targets such as Monsanto or Wal-Mart.

Back in 1998 when OCA joined Greenpeace and others to demand that WFM remove products contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its stores, WFM publicly stated its opposition to GMOs and promised that its “365” house brand would be GMO-free. In the wake of this declaration, WFM gave financial support to the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered foods, a coalition in which OCA was a prominent member. Earlier in 1998, OCA and WFM generated several hundred thousand petition signatures in a successful grassroots campaign demanding that the USDA maintain the ban on GMOs, sewage sludge, and food irradiation in organic production.

In 2006, when OCA called for a boycott of Aurora’s factory farm milk, mislabeled as organic, WFM quietly stopped buying from Aurora. Similarly as the Cornucopia Institute and OCA exposed Dean Food’s Horizon brand as sourcing a significant portion of its milk from intensive confinement feedlots, you left it to your regional managers to drop Horizon products or significantly reduce their shelf space. Most of them did.

In 2008 OCA exposed the fact that a number of WFM personal care products, as well as 48 out of 100 personal care products sold as “organic” or “natural” in your stores, were contaminated with the dangerous carcinogen 1,4 Dioxane. After OCA, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company, and the State of California exposed WFM and other leading so-called organic brands such as Jason’s, Nature’s Gate, and Kiss My Face, and took legal action, WFM promised to reformulate all of its brand name personal care products.

Later in 2008, OCA, joined by the United Farmworkers and the Teamsters, launched a national petition campaign and picketed outside WFM supermarkets in 35 states, pressuring WFM to tell its largest natural beef supplier, Beef Northwest (“Country Natural Beef”) to recognize the fact that 80% of its mostly immigrant feedlot workers had signed union cards with the United Farmworkers. After a two month campaign, WFM, along with Bon Appetit and Puget Community Coop, pressured Beef Northwest into recognizing the union.

So here we are in 2009. The big difference today in the organic community is our growing understanding that organics and Fair Trade are not just lifestyle or health options, or even matters of elemental human rights or justice; but rather questions of literal survival. Either we as a nation, and a global community, move rapidly away from a “conventional” (and so-called natural) food and farming system which is chemical and energy-intensive, low in nutrients and high in contaminants, or else we are headed straight for disaster. Either we move quickly to make organic production the norm, and green and relocalize our economy, or else we will destroy ourselves in what can only be described as a terminal public health, energy, and climate Crisis. Either we walk our talk and change our ways in regard to consumer, public policy, and business practices, or else we are headed over the cliff, dragging our children and the future generations with us. Either we move away from crazed notions of globalized “free trade,” wars for oil and strategic resources, and unregulated laissez faire corporate greed, or else we are doomed.

Organic food and farming is the only way to drastically reduce fossil fuel use, slash climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas pollution, sequester enormous amounts of carbon in the soil, produce adequate crops under unpredictable weather conditions, preserve small farms, and improve public health. We can no longer tolerate a business model on the part of organic retail market leaders, such as WFM, or your major wholesale supplier, United Natural Foods (UNFI)  which amounts to selling 2/3 conventional foods and products (greenwashed as “natural”) and only 1/3 certified organic. There is no such thing as a “natural” chemical fertilizer, a natural toxic pesticide such as Monsanto’s Roundup or Syngenta’s Atrazine, a natural petrochemical-derived, carcinogenic ingredient in a personal care or cleaning product, or a natural genetically modified organism. Your “bait and switch” greenwashing of conventional products, disguised as natural or almost organic, is morally bankrupt.

Fair trade and economic justice (including health care justice), as part of an overall green and organic economy, are the only way we are going to reduce poverty and conflict. Whole Foods Market and United Natural Foods like to brag about how your workers are part of your family, and how well you treat them (some of them tell us otherwise). But our question on this Labor Day 2009 is what about the workers throughout your mostly conventional/so-called natural supply chain? What about the thousands of non-unionized and exploited farm workers in California, Texas, Florida, Mexico, and Asia who supply most of your produce? What about the immigrant feedlot and slaughterhouse workers in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska? What about the truck drivers, food processing workers, and warehouse staff across the country? Aren’t we all one family?

We are asking no more from Whole Foods Market and your suppliers than what we demand of ourselves–walk your talk, prioritize organic food and products, practice Fair Trade and social justice, and wake up to the fact that “business as usual” is a recipe for disaster. It’s time for an organic and Fair Trade revolution, before it’s too late.

To save your lawyers the trouble of faxing or emailing you this petition, here is what OCA is asking Whole Foods and your major supplier, UNFI to do. We know you’re not going to listen to us until a critical mass of organic consumers, farmers, and workers raise their voices together, potentially threatening your bottom line. But here’s OCA’s moral and ethical bottom line for health, justice, and sustainability:

1) We want a public commitment on the part of WFM (and your major wholesale supplier UNFI) to double your sales of organics from 1/3 of sales to 2/3 of total sales within three years. This will boost U.S organic revenues by approximately three billion dollars annually, or 15%, and move us closer to the essential “tipping point” where organics will become the norm, not just the alternative. Part of this commitment must be a pledge to pressure your so-called “natural” product suppliers to sign a contract with a USDA-accredited certifier to make the transition to organic production. WFM and UNFI should form an independent advisory board of organic producers and suppliers which is representative, both in terms of geography and scale (small to large), to make proposals for WFM and UNFI to meet this goal.

(2) We want WFM to obtain a public commitment by your major supplier, UNFI, to give retail members of the National Cooperative Grocers Association–who are doing a qualitatively better job of promoting and selling organics–to receive the same preferential discounts that WFM are receiving. Otherwise UNFI is in fact subsidizing WFM’s mainly conventional (i.e. greenwashed as “natural”) sales rather than giving a “fair deal” to small and medium-sized stores and coops who are working diligently to sell genuine organic products.

(3) We want WFM and UNFI to publicly acknowledge that Fair Trade principles and practices need to be implemented as part of your entire US/North American/global supply chain for food and organic/natural products, not just for the minority of products produced overseas and certified as Fair Trade. And of course supporting domestic Fair Trade means that WFM and UNFI must stop speaking out against the Employee Free Choice Act and health care reform, and recognize workers’ rights, especially in large for-profit corporations, to freely organize themselves into unions for collective bargaining. We call on WFM and UNFI to take leadership in this area by publicly asserting that they will be neutral, and not interfere, in any situation in which their employees undertake to organize themselves into a union.

Venceremos/We Shall Overcome,

Co-Founder and Director Organic Consumers Association

RONNIE CUMMINS is director of the Organic Consumers Alliance. He can be reached at: ronnie@organicconsumers.org.

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Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico-based affiliate, Via Organica.

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