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cdh

Michael Pollan's open letter to Whole Foods

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See http://michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=80

He tackles a number of issues that arise from WF's enlargement and adoption of certain seemingly industrial techniques that appear to fly in the face of the store's philosophy.

Specifically, he addresses:

- local sourcing and "backdoor buying" being dropped in favor of the economies of scale of using distribution centers.

- "customer demand" for unsustainable, or unhealthy, or otherwise suspect products when WF's corporate schtick is to educate the customers about their products.

- WF's inconsistent policy on media availability.

- and much more

He's got more interesting writing in the NYTimes blog section behind the TimesSelect wall too.


Edited by cdh (log)

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Thanks so much for posting this.

Here is a great quote from the end of the letter:

In the same way we now need (as you pointed out in our meeting) to raise the bar again on American agriculture, we need to raise it on the American eater too, teaching him about the satisfactions (and nutritional benefits) of eating in season, from his locality, and from a food chain based on grass rather than corn. I think we agree that this is where the "reformation" now is headed; you are in a position to lead rather than to follow it there. To do so is also, I daresay, in your company's self-interest: as competitors like Wal-Mart and Safeway move into selling industrial organic food, Whole Foods can distinguish itself by moving to the next stage, doing things they can't possibly do. "Local" surely is one of those things: and your buyers already know exactly how to do it. All Wal-Mart knows is how to source industrial organic food from China.

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That letter was a pleasure to read. I would love to read Whole Foods' response.

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Thank you for posting a link to the letter.

This is one of the sections that resonates most with me:

As we discussed, the company's shift a few years ago from "backdoor sales" to a regional distribution system has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for small local farmers to sell directly to individual Whole Foods stores. For some farmers, this may be a boon as you suggest, but for the many Bay Area farmers I have spoken to, it has shut them out -- they don't grow enough to supply a distribution center, or the centers are too far from their farms. You write that all of your stores are in fact free to buy locally, which I was surprised and delighted to hear. I hope you'll take steps to encourage them in that direction.

Organizers of one of my area's farmer's markets met with representatives of Whole Foods last summer. I heard no reports back of any success, but I would like to ask them about the experience after reading this letter. I have spoken at length with a few employees at one of the WF stores I frequent about this very issue, including one guy who moved up to middle management who liked his job very much, but was not all that happy with the decision made in corporate headquarters to forbid "backdoor sales" and to limit the relative autonomy the departments of individual stores had when it came to the items they sold. (He also had things to say about WF meetings for employees and indoctrination.)

Niman Ranch supplies pork to WF throughout the United States, but not all the products it makes. I called them about the guanciale they sell to individuals and small enterprises such as DiBruni's in Philadelphia. WF is just too big, they told me and they don't produce enough quantities of guanciale for the company to carry the product.

"Not even to the head of the meat department at one of my local Whole Foods stores?" I asked.

"No can do," he replied.

Part of the problem is not just the regional distibution system, but the chain of command, or nature of the institutional hierarchy in a corporation that has grown as large as Whole Foods has.

In the height of the season for beautiful red and yellow bell peppers where local retail businesses are offering them for around $1.99 a pound, Whole Foods will therefore be shipping them in from the Netherlands and charging $6.99 a pound. The newly picked organic peppers are selling for a whole lot more than $1.99 down at the farmers' market, but less than $6.99 and well, they look more like the kind Edward Weston photographed. And these are just peppers. Tomatoes? Peaches? The gorgeous, fragrant California produce I bought in Colorado just is not so glorious here on the east coast where it is gratefully accepted in the winter, but not so appealing when our own food is grand.

I am heading out to Whole Foods shortly and will have to check signage, but from what I recall, the only local business I know that supplies the store on a regular basis is in PA. Mushrooms. Those signs went up due to criticism that was levied long before Michael Pollan's book came out.

It is good that WF is feeling defensive. Maybe it will change. However, while the company was gobbling up Fresh Fields, Bread & Circuses, and making sure Wild Oats (Boulder, CO) did not present serious competition, I didn't see signs of concern for local farms. Logistics mattered. How to handle such expansion? Volume?

Now that Wegman's is presenting competition (if of the Bigger, Better variety), and there's Real Food Markets (interesting that WF has moved to London, no?), maybe....

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Here's John Mackey's open letter to Michael Pollan.

ETA:  I am glad Mackey finds the Berkeley professor "highly intelligent"!

Thanks for tracking this down. This looks to be an open letter written by Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, on May 26, 2006. I guess that Pollan's letter is a response to this and to his meetings with Mackay in the spring after the book was published.

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A couple of editorial thoughts about these. Pollan and Mackey are both looking at the same problem. They want high-quality, ethical foodstuffs to be available. Mackey, also has the responsibility of Whole Foods, which it seems he has completely taken ownership of his role in Whole Foods, and makes several decisions of how and what they purchase as well as why.

Pollan, on the other hand, is not looking to resell his food for a monetary profit. Pollan's profit comes from the enjoyment of cooking the food, eating it with his family, and enjoying the visceral qualities that high-quality, heart-and-soul food offer.

Mackey, unlike Pollan, has an objective side--Whole Foods' bottom line--to answer to, where Pollan answers more to an aesthetic.

Mackey, and his subordinates, most likely follow a Quality Assurance line of questioning when they are deciding to go with a certain producer of something. This goes along the line of "what can you provide me" "how much of it can you provide" "how often can you provide it" and "what level of quality can you provide it". Then, they hammer out contracts that ensure this occurs. If things aren't delivered to the level specified in the contract, then the provider is liable. In the pharmaceutical industry, we do this type of questioning with all of our suppliers--even sewer, water, and electrical. We even internally tier them in order of necessity of quality/availability.

So, Farmer John 80-Acre typically has three things against him (actually more, but I'll leave those out). First is, Farmer John 80-Acre is small. He can't supply a tremendous amount of food, compared to what a supermarket actually goes through in a day. Second, is Farmer John 80-Acre is geographically isolated, so a bad storm can wipe out all of his crops. His availability is thus very questionable from year-to-year. Third, is Farmer John 80-Acre is typically more capricious in his choices of what to grow than a much larger farm. This means that the what he can provide in a 3 or 5 year forecast is not necessarily known by Farmer John 80-Acre, so Whole Foods can't forecast on his data--because there isn't data.

The moral is, small is agile, and large is not. That is why WF tends to like more stratified, codified, larger producers. It's easier for them to project and require from those producers.

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For additional background, here is a thread on Michael Pollan's recently released book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. click

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I think it's heartening to see a journalist and a CEO engaging in such a thoughtful exchange. It speaks volumes about Whole Foods that they both felt the need to refute certain parts of the book and that they did so in a non-condescending manner.

Pollan's defense of why he didn't interview Whole Foods is pretty weak. The fact that in the past he interviewed people from WF is utterly irrelevant. The fact that WF has refused other interview requests is also irrelevant, because Pollan never asked them.

His contention that he was acting more as consumer than a journalist sounds like a cop out. I haven't read the book, but I can't imagine that he couldn't combine the two perspectives. Why couldn't he give the consumers perspective of shopping at a few stores and then balance that with research and interviews?

He has clearly softened on WF after interviewing the CEO. Pollan may not feel that he owes WF an apology (I think he does), but surely at the very least a reprint of the book should reflect this new position.

Beyond that, I appreciate how Pollan seems to be fair about the difficulties of selling better food on a large scale. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

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The moral is, small is agile, and large is not.  That is why WF tends to like more stratified, codified, larger producers.  It's easier for them to project and require from those producers.

Easier, but not impossible. If the Michael Pollan's are making the Whole Foods uncomfortable, good. If Whole Foods takes a leadership role, even better.

Pollan might also argue that local isn't an aesthetic issue, and I bet Al Gore would agree. The current system does not work and is being artificially subsidised. From soil erosion to dependency on fossil fuel to farm subsidies, the current system can't handle all we're asking it to do.

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I think it's heartening to see a journalist and a CEO engaging in such a thoughtful exchange. It speaks volumes about Whole Foods that they both felt the need to refute certain parts of the book and that they did so in a non-condescending manner.

Pollan's defense of why he didn't interview Whole Foods is pretty weak. The fact that in the past he interviewed people from WF is utterly irrelevant. The fact that WF has refused other interview requests is also irrelevant, because Pollan never asked them.

His contention that he was acting more as consumer than a journalist sounds like a cop out. I haven't read the book, but I can't imagine that he couldn't combine the two perspectives.

For the record, Michael Pollan is not a journalist. He is a professor at Berkeley, one of California's best public universities whose professional responsibilities are divided thusly: 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% service to the university if he holds a regular faculty position. I confess I do not know the details of his professional status; there are many universities who hire writers of his reputation and provide unusual freedoms so that his name might be associated with the institution and accordingly, increase its prestige.

OD is similar to his best known book-length publication prior to its publication, The Botany of Desire. Unlike many scholars who contribute to their fields by addressing their peers in highly specialized works that are often difficult/impossible to comprehend unless one is fully ensconced in that discipline, and of very limited interest even when written in simple, direct prose, Pollan is one of those academics who genuinely grounds his research and writings in the world outside of the academy and addresses a wider audience. Advocacy and passion, yes, drive his work. He is writing from a definite POV, but an informed one. There is no pretense at objectivity, just a desire to understand and analyze what he perceives.

Moreover, he is able to take advantage of a recent trend in publishing; just as documentaries have been more marketable these days, non-fiction has been selling. He is a good, thoughtful writer and I urge you to read a book that I have only started, so I can't speak for the strengths of its central arguments with tremendous knowledge either. I only know what I have read in long book reviews, and what I have heard him say during his appearance at our local farmers' market in concert with a farmer he features in one of his chapters. (And yes, I am wearing Birkenstocks as I write this. I am one of Those and therefore predisposed to be sympathetic to much of what he has to say.)

In his defense, I can say that his book is not written out of a desire to critisize WF per se. It is no counterpart to Fast Food Nation where McDonald's is emblematic of the culture Schlosser critiques.

Instead, it is a personal narrative, unfolding as the author expresses a desire to understand how we as omnivores eat and how the process by which we choose to create our meals determines the nature of our culture and our lives. He divides the book into sections based on the nature of four different meals: one from a fast food establishment; one from supermarkets; one from the farmer's market; and the last supper, from foraging as a hunter and gatherer himself. Each experience is placed in a larger sociological, economic and cultural context as part of his examination of its significance and implications. However, the first-person narrative dominates the story. Thus, while it is not exactly Comfort Me with Apples, it is not Before Silent Spring or even Organic, Inc. which he graciously mentions since the latter book by a journalist simply is not getting the buzz that his book enjoys.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

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I think it's heartening to see a journalist and a CEO engaging in such a thoughtful exchange. It speaks volumes about Whole Foods that they both felt the need to refute certain parts of the book and that they did so in a non-condescending manner.

Pollan's defense of why he didn't interview Whole Foods is pretty weak. The fact that in the past he interviewed people from WF is utterly irrelevant. The fact that WF has refused other interview requests is also irrelevant, because Pollan never asked them.

His contention that he was acting more as consumer than a journalist sounds like a cop out. I haven't read the book, but I can't imagine that he couldn't combine the two perspectives.

For the record, Michael Pollan is not a journalist. He is a professor at Berkeley, one of California's best public universities whose professional responsibilities are divided thusly: 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% service to the university if he holds a regular faculty position. I confess I do not know the details of his professional status; there are many universities who hire writers of his reputation and provide unusual freedoms so that his name might be associated with the institution and accordingly, increase its prestige.

We seem to be getting bogged down in tangents, but...

Actually, for the record, Pollan is not a scholar. He is a journalist. A quick look at his CV shows that he has a distinguished career as a science writer and editor. He is now a professor of journalism at Berkeley.

I don't understand how his faculty status is relevant.

I probably need to read the book before commenting more, although such niceties aren't always required on the internets. :wink:


Edited by TAPrice (log)

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Reasonable people can indeed disagree, and as long as they "put their money where their mouth is" I'm willing to consider their arguments and render my own decision.

But, I wonder if the NYT offers more favorable advertising rates to smaller, socially conscious, family-style businesses, food related or otherwise, than they do do the corporate behemoths?

SB (it always comes down to whose ox is being gored) :hmmm:

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Actually, for the record, Pollan is not a scholar. He is a journalist. A quick look at his CV shows that he has a distinguished career as a science writer and editor. He is now a professor of journalism at Berkeley.

Yes, yes, big whoops. He's both. I realized as soon as I got up to wash the dishes that the guy's probably in the School of Journalism because of a distinguished career that led to his current role.

What I should have done is my own quick research first, then tried to explain that he was writing as a journalist in the George Plimpton, Calvin Trillin, Bruce Buford School....though none of those comparisons quite work, really. Point was this was not an expose', but personal narrative, cleverly and creatively organized.

As for the bit about scholarly role, I simply was expressing my own admiration for members of the academy who engage in the world as they perform their duties in teaching and research/writing (called "scholarship"). They are not more valuable than the chemist who discovers something important in her lab after fifteen years of collaboration with the small number of members of an international community who also know her field. It's just different, and in this case, relevant to what interests us here at eG.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

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Easier, but not impossible. If the Michael Pollan's are making the Whole Foods uncomfortable, good. If Whole Foods takes a leadership role, even better.

Pollan might also argue that local isn't an aesthetic issue, and I bet Al Gore would agree. The current system does not work and is being artificially subsidised. From soil erosion to dependency on fossil fuel to farm subsidies, the current system can't handle all we're asking it to do.

You're right, it is easier, much easier. Kind of like the difference between simple algebra using only the four basic arithmetic functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) vs complex statistics. The problem is there is definitely a point of diminishing returns when you go toward the statistics side.

I agree with what you say on Pollan and Gore arguing that the current system does not work and is being artificially subsidized. But, I don't think that there are a great many correlations between the economics of a solar-based economy versus an oil-based economy of food. And, the switch-over will be long and painful, based on current trends in American society.

But, I don't think it is in Whole Foods's best interests to take the lead in this role. I think Whole Foods's role as an educator and a pendulum-direction-indicator are more important. Of course, if we can stop letting people legislate science, things would be much better, too.

Edit to add: About Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

Edited by jsolomon (log)

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But, I don't think it is in Whole Foods's best interests to take the lead in this role.  I think Whole Foods's role as an educator and a pendulum-direction-indicator are more important. 

I don't see how selling organic cherries flown in from Chile in January allows Whole Foods a role as an educator and a pendulum-direction-indicator. And I thought you were arguing that they are a business first and foremost.

Why not take all those really brilliant business minds and create a model where everyone wins?

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  Why not take all those really brilliant business minds and create a model where everyone wins?

because someone must get the short end of the stick.


Edited by carpetbagger, esq. (log)

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Why not take all those really brilliant business minds and create a model where everyone wins?

Well, now that is getting to the question Michael Friedman posed in "The World is Flat".

So, why not create a model where everyone wins? Well, I think too many people want it to be a zero-sum game, a sort of I-win-you-lose affair. Also, a paradigm shift of that magnitude would literally uproot a global market, and for all of our grand schemes, our world is our universe. You would have to re-engineer the economics of feeding 3 billion people or so--and feeding them is big business.

But, it has to start as a groundswell somewhere. Changes in the food market tend to come either from the bottom up, as tastes and economics change, or from the top down, as economics and tastes are changed. Both must coexist and influence the other.

Unfortunately, I can't fathom where to begin. The problem is, even if I try to have a local food footprint, I'm still a member of the military, hooked up to the internet, drive a gasoline powered car, use modern pharmeceuticals, and drink beer and coffee. The only thing that is remotely locally sourced from those is the electricity that my house uses, but even that is generated more than a hundred miles away, in a coal-fired, or nuclear plant. My dollar for food or lifestyle casts a large shadow, as an American. And, even if I did start sourcing my food more locally, my food supplier's dollar still casts a similar-sized shadow. I can't expect my farmer to plow the earth with oxen and drive a wooden cart, can I?

I don't know where to start, and it would be instructive to see people's opinions of where to start.

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because someone must get the short end of the stick.

It's not any shorter than the stick that the chicken I fry for Sunday dinner's is. Or the potato that I uproot for Sunday dinner...

Besides, it's not like we can take it with us...

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Some good points all around here. For me, small and local has always been more important than organic. But, on the other hand, I am in a demographic where I can afford to pay for that sort of thing.

Speaking more on the subject of local, rancho_gordo brings up an interesting point with respect to WF selling organic cherries from Chile and that sort of thing. This makes me wonder, however, just how much we can really feed this country with strictly local foods. For someone living in, say, Wyoming or Minnesota, the selection of available local fresh produce is not very good most of the year. It is, of course, easy for someone living in or around the Central Valley to proclaim that we should all be eating fresh and local year-round, because those things are available most of the year in that area of the country (that said, especially in the Southern part of the valley, much this agriculture is hardly what I'd call "sustainable" considering the effect of all that irrigation).

So... is there really that much difference between someone in Austin buying organic cherries grown in Chile and someone from Chicago buying organic lettuce grown in the Valley? I'm not sure either way, but it is a question that's been on my mind, especially since I don't think many people are aware of the ecological issues of Central Valley agriculture (and that's where much of the year-round American-grown produce comes from). Should we all be eating preserves in the off-season? That's got to be a pretty tough situation for someone who lives in a colder climate.

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Should we all be eating preserves in the off-season?  That's got to be a pretty tough situation for someone who lives in a colder climate.

You're right, Sam, but, there is a lot of edible stuff that grows in Wyoming and Minnesota that we don't take advantage of. That's half of the problem. We aren't clued in to what is local that is edible, so we try to force our non-local ideals on a place.

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Pollan's defense of why he didn't interview Whole Foods is pretty weak.

It's especially ironic that a professor of journalism and frequent New York Times contributor would rip in to a corporation in this manner (e.g., the numerous comparisons between Whole Foods and Wal-Mart) without even requesting an interview. I'm surprised it passed legal review at the publishing company. When my book was being reviewed by the HarperCollins legal department, I had to provide either written documentation or interview notes in several equivalent situations, and in a couple of places they made cuts because they thought I didn't have enough hard information to back up my claims. Pollan is such a great writer and such a tremendously smart guy that it makes me cringe to hear about him making such an elementary misjudgment.

I think the better move for Pollan would have been to come right out and say "I was wrong not to ask for an interview." By arguing (weakly) around that issue, he perpetuates what could become a red herring in the debate. Instead, if he just said he was wrong, he could go on to say, "Okay, so now that we've established that I should have asked for an interview, and now that I've met with the source and done a lengthy interview, let's look at the facts . . . ." No more red herring. And he could get a good lesson out of it for his journalism classes: "See, class? Here's what happens when you don't give the target of critical reporting the opportunity to comment. I learned my lesson, and I hope you'll learn it too."

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I read the book, and I didn't find anything libelous in what MP said about WF. He did compare them to Wal-Mart but not in any way other than "they are successful at changing the face of X".

I don't think there was anything to have to worry about getting past the lawyers.

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Whatever Michael Pollan may or may not be, Whole Foods obviously considered him important enough to merit a response. My (polite) e-mail protesting the strong-arming of Grimaud Farms received no response whatsoever, but of course I'm just one unimportant customer. Ex-customer, now.

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He's got more interesting writing in the NYTimes blog section behind the TimesSelect wall too.

just a blip in the discussion: Pollan's writings are available to non-subscribers on his site.

from Pollan:

The guest columns I've been writing for the New York Times Select

website have been behind the "firewall" on the site-- you have to be

a subscriber to read them. Not any more: I've posted all of them on

my website, at http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=79.

Unfortunately, to read the responses from readers, you still have to

go to Times Select, at http://pollan.blogs.nytimes.com.

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