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Michael Pollan's open letter to Whole Foods

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So you're a friend of Pollan? Fair enough.

I'll be interested to hear this. I think the exchange is really great. When was the last time a CEO intelligently answered a critic?


Edited by TAPrice (log)

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So you're a friend of Pollan? Fair enough.

I'll be interested to hear this. I think the exchange is really great. When was the last time a CEO intelligently answered a critic?

Based on some of the absolutely ignorant things I have been known to declare with uttter conviction (cf. one of my earliest posts in this thread), I would caution you about the dangers of presumptions.

I have met the author and handed out braised short ribs as he spoke, but that is it.

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Sorry. I meant "friend" in the American sense of "knowing someone, having met them once, etc."

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I just re-read OD for the second time since this topic started. Pollen approached his whole point of view of Whole Foods from a consumers perspective, nothing as a journalist. So how is his assessment of WF wrong because he didn't formally interview executives? I can walk into WF in Sebastopol, CA and come to the same concusions he did. I get 100% of my produce from local farmers, and Sebastopol is a huge farming communty, and the farmers point of view is very similar. A picture/profile of one local farmer is showcased in the produce section, yet they haven't bought a thing from him in over a year.

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The excuse, made in response to the Whole Foods challenge and repeated here, that Omnivore's Dilemma is not journalism does not square with what Pollan says in the book itself. When Pollan wrote the material for the book, he certainly saw it as a journalistic undertaking:

So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an American supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping cart all the way back to the soil? The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforward question “What should I eat?” could no longer be answered without first addressing two other even more straightforward questions: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” Not very long ago an eater didn’t need a journalist to answer these questions. The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain.
(Page 17)

Also, from the introduction:

Somehow this most elemental of activities—figuring out what to eat—has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?

He certainly does not claim in the book -- nor does the reality of the book's general conclusions support such a vision -- that he's only writing about personal experience. Rather, he says that's half of the project, the other half being, as I understand it, a sort of anthropological journalism. Also from the introduction:

What I try to do in this book is approach the dinner question as a naturalist might, using the long lenses of ecology and anthropology, as well as the shorter, more intimate lens of personal experience.

I suppose he may be claiming more narrowly that the book contains some journalism but the material on Whole Foods is not journalism and is therefore exempt from journalistic principles, but that strikes me as an awfully feeble claim, devised defensively in response to getting called on an error.

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Here's a link to Mackey's June 26th reply: Detailed Reply to Pollan Letter.

And a short excerpt:

I'll only say a couple of things as an introduction. One of these is that I'm disappointed that you didn't respond at all to my short section on the history of the organic foods movement and how difficult it was for Whole Foods Market to develop sufficient supply and scale to actually get authentic organic foods into the hands (and mouths) of millions of people. You completely ignored that section. Without Whole Foods Market's pioneering work and without the growth of our stores and distribution centers, it is very unlikely that the organic foods movement would be where it is today.

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Thank you, Anne & Russ. Well, in this fast-paced world it's easy to become dated. However, I'm reaching the end of OD & have a response to what used to be the last post here....

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The excuse, made in response to the Whole Foods challenge and repeated here, that Omnivore's Dilemma is not journalism does not square with what Pollan says in the book itself.

The full title of the book:

Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

The reference to nature ties the work to Michael Pollan's previous books, even A Place of One's Own, as evident in a photograph of the writing space the journalist built in wooded surroundings. (The architectural subject first appeared in a beautiful, personal essay in The New York Times Magazine.)

The Library of Congress classifies Omnivore's Dilemma differently. The natural histories of Charles Darwin—even Diane Ackerman, the poet who writes non-fiction about animals—are given numbers under "Q" for science.

However, Pollan's new book is assigned a number beginning with "GT" for Food Habits, a sub-category of Geography & Anthropology.* M.F.K. Fisher's works are all grouped under "TX," the first letter signifying Technology, and in combination with "X," specifying the field of Home Economics. Shudder.

For a study that explores the nature of classification and what categories say about the way we think and why we believe in them, cf. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff, another Berkeley professor.

However, the author IS a journalist and Steven Shaw maintains he made a professional error while researching Chapter Nine: The Big Organic (pages 134-184 of 411) which begins "I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods…," a sentence that delivers a cheerful indictment as one moves on to the next page. Michael Pollan decides to analyze his shopping trip by focusing on the evolution of corporations from the Counter-Culture movement in the 1960s and turns largely to organic farms instead of dissecting the business practices and growth of Whole Foods. He traces much of what disturbs him back a little further to industrialization. In the process, Pollan offers a lot of praise to some of his subjects, though it tends to be qualified. If that chapter has a villain, it is a gradual, evolving process and a network of inter-relationships rather than a single entity. Conclusions suggest that success distances parties from many—but not all—of the ideals that brought their ventures into being. The sad fate of People's Park becomes a metaphor for what happens when Eden's lost and no one gets all the way back to the Garden.

Perhaps one of the reasons John Mackay wrote his open letter is that he resents the clever characterization of one's experience at Whole Foods as literary. Michael Pollan expresses a skepticism that many of us share when it comes to marketing, noting the idyllic fashion in which signs and labels reinforce the belief of shoppers that they're buying an item superior (more humane, more nutritious, fresher, tastier…) to its counterpart at Safeway, a supermarket mentioned only in passing. Ultimately, he concludes that the skills of a literary critic or journalist are required to decipher what one finds, although anyone trained to analyze texts (lawyers, politicians…) is up to the task. The one representative of Whole Foods who appears in the chapter goes nameless. However, Pollan quotes the marketing consultant verbatim.

It is difficult to critique anything without sounding superior oneself, especially to the object of scrutiny just as it is very difficult to write well without believing in the truth of one's own perspective, at least when the subject matters to you. Michael Pollan does not perform an exposé à la 60 Minutes (a show he mentions), but as someone who approaches the verbal self-representation of Whole Foods with a critical eye, he produces a text that represents himself as a thoughtful, engaged individual with a new, comprehensive understanding of the culture and consequences of eating, one inaccessible to a vegan executive unless he re-examines his personal morality.** To be inferred: MORE thoughtful and engaged than John Mackay who built a thriving company out of sincere convictions. Naturally, the businessman feels defensive.

The fact that Pollan singles out Whole Foods and then glosses over it in preference for a narrative about the sixties and farms may also appear as a slight. Mackay's story has been told in The New York Times before, though the development of businesses started by Gene Kahn—the closest thing to a protagonist in this chapter—Myra Goodman and others are less well known.

Does he replace John Mackay's pastoral myth with his own? That may be, but I'm partial. I like his story.

*Anyone familiar with major museums devoted to natural history might be aware of the category's problematic relationship to anthropology. A display of stunning Haitian voodoo flags was launched at the natural history museum in Manhattan instead of MOMA, upstairs from a popular exhibition of living butterflies. In Washington, D.C., different understandings of cultural identity and different stages in the history of colonialism separate African objects in a new art museum from the European and European-inspired American works at the National Gallery of Art, and several blocks away, from the African "artifacts" placed in a gallery near Mammals at the older museum of natural history. (FYI: Dewey call #: Geography.)

**Michael Pollan hunts a wild pig in the final section of the book. He also argues for the mutual benefits of animal husbandry, even when it comes to animals whose lives end in slaughter and braises.

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article from Reuters

The CEO of supermarket chain Whole Foods Market Inc. responding to a critic in an online war of words, has pledged to add $10 million to his company's annual budget for supporting locally grown food.John Mackey said it would make long-term, low-interest loans to small farms, especially producers of grass-fed beef and organic pasture-based eggs.  "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 UK as well," Mackey wrote Mackey said some Whole Foods outlets would use parts of their parking lots on Sundays to host open-air markets for nearby farms and would redouble efforts to buy from local producers.

This is very good news, no? :rolleyes:

Do you think that Whole Foods got the message Pollan sends in his book?

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I don't think this matters as to whether they are going to save face by this move, or not.

What I would hope is that Whole Foods will turn its education mission around and help small farmers fill the HACCP need to help them expand into other markets. This could be a large opportunity for WF to transform the modern supermarket, again.

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i don't want to sound like a goody two-shoes here, because the devil will be in the details. but i do think that if they pull it off whole foods deserves credit for doing something pretty damned amazing. there are only a couple of local chains in the nation that are doing this and certainly nothing approaching this scale. this is going to be a major pain in the a** to manage, but, if realized, it will be momentous.

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i this is going to be a major pain in the a** to manage, but, if realized, it will be momentous.

Y'know, I disagree. If W.F. is willing to decentralize some of the decision-making process, and simply take a review role, I think they could be very successful in this.

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All I know is that my local Whole Foods has been the only source of New York state strawberries I've been able to find this year. No other supermarket bothers, it's just endless tons of hard flavorless CA berries.

I really don't care whether Whole Foods' berries are organic: they're fresh, local, fragrant & tasty, and that impresses the heck out of me.

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i this is going to be a major pain in the a** to manage, but, if realized, it will be momentous.

Y'know, I disagree. If W.F. is willing to decentralize some of the decision-making process, and simply take a review role, I think they could be very successful in this.

i'm not disagreeing that they could be successful. i'm just saying that implementing institutional change on that level is ALWAYS difficult. And that there are far more headaches involved in dealing with thousands of small farmers rather than a dozen or so big wholesalers, which is the normal model for chains of that size.

if they can pull it off, and if they can pull it off in a way that results in better products for their customers, and if the customers will respond to that despite the somewhat higher prices that will inevitably follow, this could become THE model for high-end groceries in the next decade. and since the supermarket business is splitting between the warehouse and high-end stores, it could be very, very big.

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Of course I would like WF to carry local food in season, forgoing a lot that is shipped to the east coast from California, The Netherlands, CHINA (the source of my organic garlic tonight), etc., etc. when we've got small local farms carrying the same thing, only fresher and ripe.

I also agree with jsolomon about the need to give more power to individual stores and to individual regions within Whole Foods, restoring some of the ideals of the co-ops from which the corporation cameth, while agreeing upon over-arching matters of Quality Control, core product lines and so forth.

However, I want to know what the local farmers want first. I am sure there will be different opinions.

Were I speaking exclusively in Utopian terms about my own city, I would like to kick all the mediocre establishments out of our one 19th-century indoor, year-round Eastern Market, and in this case, I am referring primarily to the produce stands inside. Give the space to the farmers themselves and let all the other supermarkets compete. There will be plenty of business for all.

I am a sucker for street markets and would hate to see supermarkets replace them altogether. I don't want WF to suck up even more than they have already, as delighted as I am to see the way they are eating their cake and having it too: 1) Michael Pollan, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, see how much we sell that comes from local sources?; 2) Look! We are making these changes to embrace local farms [and redress the crimes you say we commit].

I also wonder what is going to happen to the WF stores that aren't ideally situated, i.e., not in Pollan's California. Are my city's stores going to be able to say "Bye, Bye!" to the Big Organic farms in California during 3-4 months a year and then get everything they want again for the rest of the year? Marion Nestle believes in making do with what we have locally and supplementing it with frozen vegetables rather than shipping green beans to New York from F/CA. (This is admittedly simplistic.)

* * *

I just got back from a shopping trip to Whole Foods.

In a very large produce section, there were around 18 local items from farms in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland: ca. 5 different types of mushrooms, 2 kinds of kale, 3 kinds of chard, mache, butterleaf lettuce, zucchini, yellow summer squash, Dandelion greens, mint, basil and hothouse tomatoes.

I stopped counting at around 149 for the shipped produce from Georgia, California, Florida, New Jersey, Washington, South Carolina, North Carolina, Hawaii, Mexico, Cananda, Chile, Holland and China. (I forgot to check the banana labels.) Let's say there were 200 shipped items , approximately.

Granted we don't grow pineapples and citrus fruit. However, our berries, beets, scallions, garlic, etc. are great, and this early in the seaons, some of the stone fruit still proves superior to the hard peaches and nectarines from afar. Even the apricots, I would guess, as opposed to the aprium apricots at $5.99 a pound.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

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good points pontormo, and for me it crystalized the metaphor at the bottom of this whole thing. for a market like whole foods to deal with individual local farmers rather than wholesalers is the same as if we decided to do all of our marketing at individual produce, butcher, paper goods, fish, bakery, pastry shops rather than at one supermarket. most of us choose to use supermarkets because it is convenient and an economical use of our time and money. that's the same reason supermarkets use wholesalers.

perhaps the next step will be re-establishing regional wholesalers who can source local products and still deliver the convenience and savings? that's already happening to an extent in california, but then again, finding fruit and vegetable farmers is a lot easier here than in dc (or most anyplace else).

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Keep in mind, Pontormo, that when it comes to mushrooms, in our part of the country, you're almost always going to find local product, as Pennsylvania is the nation's leading musrhoom-producing state. It will be California fungi fans who will have to look long and hard for local 'shrooms in their nearest WFM.

Frankly, given the ideals John Mackey strives to espouse, I can't see how he could have done otherwise than make this announcement after having gotten called publicly on having a less-than-thorough commitment to supporting local producers. The logic of the large-scale enterprise, to be frank, runs in the opposite direction--they're not called "economies of scale" for nothing--and in terms of what the final buyer--the consumer--pays, it's usually cheaper to follow that logic. I must consciously override my own impulse towards frugality to pay double what I pay for the California lettuce to buy local, even though my crisper test suggests to me that the more expensive head is actually the better buy as I don't have to toss it before it's all used up. Similarly, it probably takes a conscious act to counter the impulse to go with a steady, constant supply of merchandise for many stores in favor of going with the variations that are likely to occur with local supply. So regardless what you think about bigness per se--and I suspect that the real issue many have with WFM or suppliers like Earthbound is not that they are hypocrites but that they are so large--give the CEO some credit for at least making an effort to remain true to his values.

Now that I've just written this, I realize that what's also at work here is a somewhat romantic revolt against industrial logic in general. The principles on which industrial production--and most national chains--rely are consistency, predictability and uniformity: You will find products of identical quality and character no matter where or when you purchase them, and you will be able to find them at any time of the year in just about any place you go. Local, artisanal production is based on a completely different set of principles: Quality matters, but the quality may not be identical from piece to piece; authenticity trumps uniformity. Supply will vary according to a number of factors, including whether the producer got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. And you may not be able to find the same things you found on your last visit at your next one.

At heart, we have two competing visions of how society and production should be organized, which takes us into arguments much bigger than this forum can address. The argument over food is merely the larger argument in microcosm.

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Thank you, Russ and yes, Sandy, you were right about the source of ALL of the mushrooms. I agree that the micro/macro debate is behind the dilemma.

Towards the end of today's 10th-Anniversary celebration at FRESHFARM Market here in D.C., I spoke about this series of open letters with two guys who represent a small local operation that participates regularly at the market. They said they were in discussion with Whole Foods and that WF contacted THEM about the possibility of carrying their food.

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I've recently dealt with WF directly and I have to say, to a person, they've been considerate, professional and understanding, especially as to my position as a small producer. Maybe fresh produce is different but re dry goods, my impression is that the stores can make individual decisions.

I'm as cynical as the next guy but these guys are trying to do the right thing and are responding to feedback. I'm sure they're also trying to make a lot of money but there is a dialog going on that is nothing short of amazing. I'd like to see Safway or Vons show a similar interest!

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This statement was made in WF's reply to the Pollan letter (link upthread)

I will say, however, that buying only local foods may be good for local farmers, but it can also be devastating to poor farmers all over the world who need to sell their products to the developed world to help lift themselves out of poverty. A strictly local foods philosophy is not a very compassionate philosophy. As Singer and Mason write in their new book, "keep your dollars circulating in your own community is not an ethical principle at all. To adhere to a principle of 'buy locally,' irrespective of the consequences for others, is a kind of community-based selfishness" (Singer and Mason p. 141). Whole Foods Market intends to continue to buy quality natural and organic foods from around the world, because our customers want us to and because doing so helps support some of the poorest economies in the world. You may not have liked those organic asparagus from Argentina very much, but Argentina is not a wealthy country (ranking only #65 in GNI per capita at $3,720 versus $41,400 in the USA-source: The World Bank, 2004) and helping their farmers to sell organic foods is very beneficial to them. Do you not feel any ethical obligation to help poor people around the world? What better way to help them, than to be willing to buy their agricultural products?

I can't say I've ever really heard this argument or given it much thought (I would share the 'typical' reaction to out of season asparagus and tomatoes) so I'm curious to see if anyone has any thoughts...

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I've recently dealt with WF directly and I have to say, to a person, they've been considerate, professional and understanding, especially as to my position as a small producer. Maybe fresh produce is different but re dry goods, my impression is that the stores can make individual decisions.

I'm as cynical as the next guy but these guys are trying to do the right thing and are responding to feedback. I'm sure they're also trying to make a lot of money but there is a dialog going on that is nothing short of amazing. I'd like to see Safway or Vons show a similar interest!

but only in the interest of spreading the greater gospel according to phaseolus, right?

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Phaseolus.

Disappointed. Thought this would be a pragmatic Stoic or Epicurean with a sympathy for the plebes.

ETA: Check out the new, relevant food blog by phlawless. She's attempting to feed a family of three almost exclusively from foods within a 100-mile radius of her home this week.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

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Disappointed.  Thought this would be a pragmatic Stoic or Epicurean with a sympathy for the plebes.

hey, if that's not a description of a dried bean, i don't know what is!

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