Whole Foods Makes Major New Commitments

The food's been flying in the blogosphere lately as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and food writer Michael Pollan engage in a respectful, passionate and very thorough blog-based debate about Pollan's portrayal of the Austin-based grocery chain in his recent book The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's been a fascinating exchange to follow, but today Mackey raised the stakes even further in a very detailed response to Pollan's last post that finished with the announcement of five major initiatives Whole Foods has implemented, or will shortly implement, regarding animal compassion, its support of small, local farmers, and its education of its customers. According to Mackey...

In my first paragraph of this letter I promised to tell you about some exciting new initiatives that Whole Foods Market is launching. So here goes:

1. We've hired our first animal compassionate field buyer, Andrew Gunther, who is going to work exclusively on developing sources of animal products that meet our new strict animal compassionate standards. Andrew is well qualified for this post as he has owned and managed a very successful organic farm in the U.K. and has pioneered animal compassionate methods on his farm for chickens, ducks, turkeys, beef cattle, and pigs. Andrew is a knowledgeable and passionate man concerning animal welfare. We're lucky to have him working with us. All of Andrew's initial animal compassionate suppliers will be relatively small in scale. If you check out our animal compassionate standards you will see that the standards have specific provisions requiring access to pasture (going beyond the current organic standards regarding pasture). Pasture is not optional in these standards but is one of the core values. If you know of any animal compassionate farmers (including 100% grass farmers) interested in selling to Whole Foods Market, please have them contact Andrew at Andrew.Gunther@wholefoods.com.

2. Whole Foods Market is changing the job responsibilities of our Regional Buyers to focus more on sourcing local products for their stores.

3. We have set up an annual budget of $10 million to promote local agriculture (especially animal agriculture) wherever we have stores through long-term loans at low rates of interest. Select Regional and Store Buyers will be empowered to extend these loans to help support smaller scale agricultural entrepreneurs. This money will be used to help local producers of grass fed beef, goat milk dairies, organic pasture based eggs, animal compassionate dairy cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs, etc. Some of the money will also be used to help support local vegetable farmers as well. It is Whole Foods Market's intention to help finance local agriculture all over the United States. We are going to "walk our talk" with financial support for local, small scale agriculture. We are inspired by the initial success of our Whole Planet Foundation's work with micro-credit loans in developing world communities that we trade with. We see that these small loans are making a huge difference in the lives of poor people in Guatemala and Costa Rica (with new loan projects being set up in India and Honduras in 2007-and eventually around the "whole planet"). We intend to do a similar thing to support local agriculture wherever we have stores. We believe this financial assistance of $10 million per year can make a very significant difference in helping local agriculture grow and flourish across the United States and in parts of Canada and the U.K. as well. Each year we will make an additional $10 million available for loans. Also as the loans are paid back, we will recycle the returned capital back into additional loans. Over time this will result in a very positive and strong multiplier effect on local agriculture.

4. Whole Foods Market is committed to supporting local farmers markets across the United States (and also in Canada and the U.K.). Beginning soon, many of our markets where we have stand-alone stores (no other retailers sharing our parking lots) will close off major sections of the parking lots on Sunday to provide a place for local farmers to sell their products directly to customers. Whenever possible we will work in cooperation with any existing farmers markets. In most cases, our stores have excellent store locations and heavy customer traffic to help these farmers markets to successfully flourish. This support of local farmers markets is consistent with our stakeholder philosophy since it directly benefits five of our six major stakeholders-customers, team members, suppliers, community, and environment. Also, our shareholders will benefit directly if store traffic increases enough to offset the amount of sales lost to the local farmers, and they will definitely benefit indirectly through increased customer and community goodwill.

5. Our Regional and Store Marketing Teams are now directly responsible for communicating and educating our customers about locally produced products. Some of our Marketers are already doing this, but company-wide we aren't doing nearly enough to tell the stories of our local producers. This is going to seriously improve over the next 12 to 24 months.

Wow! While we've been impressed with many of the steps Whole Foods has taken in recent months, these new commitments seem to demonstrate unequivocally that Mackey & co. aren't just another giant corporation looking to cash in on the recent interest in organic and local foods among the suburban set. There might be a point or two to quibble with in these initiatives, but on the whole they're very positive steps that show a company dedicated to "doing well by doing good." Many of us still consider shopping at Whole Foods a guilty pleasure; it looks like we can dispense with a sizable portion of the guilt... :: John Mackey's "Detailed Reply to Pollan Letter" via Gristmill