Whole Foods’ fans can’t digest CEO’s remarks

Health care op-ed sparks protests among customers

Whole Foods has sent letters of apology to customers for any offense CEO John Mackey may have caused in his op-ed piece. Whole Foods has sent letters of apology to customers for any offense CEO John Mackey may have caused in his op-ed piece. (Stephan Savoia/ Associated Press)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post / August 20, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Whole Foods aficionados who assumed the company’s management was as crunchy as the brand are feeling betrayed.

They have stormed Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere to vent their rage at John Mackey, the chief executive. In an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal last week, he argued for health care savings accounts and declared that health care is not an intrinsic right - ideas with a conservative bent, which made Whole Foods’ liberal customer base go ballistic.

They are even talking about a boycott. And who knows? Maybe some will have to rethink shopping at Wal-Mart. Unions once attacked the retailer’s labor and benefits policies, but Wal-Mart has become the nation’s largest purveyor of organic products and recently espoused a position on health care reform that is widely considered progressive.

“A lot of people have been paying a premium for the Whole Foods brand for years,’’ said Mark Rosenthal, a playwright living in Massachusetts who founded the Boycott Whole Foods group a few days ago. It has nearly 14,000 members. “A lot of people are sad to look at this corporation and see that it is just like any other, if not worse.’’

Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton said that Mackey was expressing personal opinions in the op-ed and that the company has no official position on the issue. Whole Foods has sent letters to customers apologizing for any offense and created a forum on its website to discuss the issue. There are more than 10,000 posts, compared with 77 posts on the raw foods forum.

Mackey is not the first corporate executive to wade into the contentious health care debate, but other brands do not inspire the level of fanaticism that Whole Foods does. Safeway chief executive Steve Burd wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in June that also called for market-based reforms in health care with nary a social media ripple.

In some cases, the pushback has worked. Wal-Mart was thrust into the health care debate, following vigorous campaigns by labor unions. The retailer has spent several years removing the tar and feathers: It lowered premiums for its health insurance, reduced the waiting period for eligibility, and slashed prices on prescription drugs for all customers. This summer, Wal-Mart broke with business groups to support universal health care alongside its onetime foe, the Service Employees International Union.

In a post to the D.C. for Obama listserv urging members to boycott Whole Foods, Thomas Goldstein wrote. “We want CEOs to understand that they benefit from promoting progressive policies and face costs when they take right-wing stands.’’

Mackey has described himself as a free-market libertarian and has long been known as a maverick in the industry. He has cut his salary to $1 and has imposed caps on executive wages but opposes labor unions. Recently, he was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for posting anonymously on a Yahoo Finance message board dedicated to Whole Foods. The agency has ruled out any action.

Mackey was unavailable for an interview, but on his blog he blamed the column’s headline - “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare’’ - for sparking some of the furor. He noted that his piece did not mention the president. He did mention, though, that the company provides high-deductible insurance for most of its employees.

Letton, the spokeswoman, pointed to the grocer’s long history in supporting sustainability and organic farming, food and nutritional labeling, and ethical treatment of animals.