Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Michael Pollan and the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey

The scene at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus Tuesday night seemed more like a rock concert than a lecture.

More than 2,000 people braved chilly rain, even a little hail, to cheer on two of the country’s biggest proponents of sustainable, organic agriculture, Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. The “grocer and the reporter,” as the men described themselves, were greeted like rock and roll stars. There was spontaneous applause throughout the talk and shouts of agreement at what the men said. At the end of the evening, many members of the audience stood to give an ovation.

The talk had its origins in May 2006, shortly after publication of Pollan’s book, in which he criticized Whole Foods for its over-reliance on “industrial organic.” Pollan suggested that Whole Foods bought too much of its food from large organic farms rather than smaller local producers. He also said that eating organic food from South America and other parts of the globe missed the point, since it took so much fossil fuel to transport the products to the supermarket.

Mackey sent Pollan a 16-page single spaced rebuttal and then invited him to talk at the Whole Foods headquarters in Austin. The two men had an hour and a half “mutually productive and enlightening” exchange and then agreed to post Mackey’s letter – and Pollan’s response – on the web. The dialogue was picked up by bloggers and the mainstream press and prompted a flurry of articles about the true value of organic – and whether Whole Foods was an ally or an enemy of the movement.

Mackey confessed on stage that Pollan’s book had damaged the company’s reputation, and insinuated that it might have led to the company’s recent stock price drop. “After your book was published, it immediately became open season on Whole Foods,” said Mackey. “The media likes to build people up and tear them down. […] Our stock was highly valued. You took some of the air out of our tires.”

“Michael, I am not blaming you for the fall off of the stock price …. Very much,” said Mackey.

It was astonishing to see a CEO of a publicly traded corporation acknowledge his company’s foibles so publicly, and Pollan praised him for his honesty. “His willingness to engage with critics sets him apart from just about every other CEO in the food industry,” said Pollan.

Pollan’s book clearly had an impact on Whole Foods and Mackey announced some progressive initiatives his company will take to promote sustainable agriculture, improve the treatment of animals, further the development of artisan products from around the world, and ensure fair treatment of workers.

§ Whole Foods will start a $30 million venture capital fund to support small producers of artisan products around the globe.

§ Whole Food will create a $10 million fund each year to lend money to local farmers.

§ Whole Foods will start a star rating system to assess how humanely a company treats its animals. It hopes the system will become an industry standard.

§ It will create a similar star system for other products that looks at how a company treats its employees, how it enriches its soil, how it treats the environment. “There is a demand for “Beyond Organic,” and this kind of rating system has the potential to meet that demand,” said Mackey.

§ Whole Foods will go into business with Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance to offer products with a certification that its producers are paid well.

There was a lot more at the talk, including a disturbing video of animals crowded into pens and led to slaughter without anesthesia. For another view, read Peter Merholz’s description. Click here to link to a webcast of the two-hour event.

Marian Burros has an article today "Is Whole Foods Straying From Its Roots?"

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