The author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, and Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, inspired and entertained audiences at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall last night with a casual debate that has been brewing for months since Pollan’s book was published. In it, he attacked some practices of the upscale grocery chain, which Mackey subsequently found to be exaggerated. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of their discourse is how the corporate grocer humbly admitted that the critic was right about some of his accusations and plans to instigate some changes in quality assurance and animal welfare.
Since Pollan has had months of media attention to illustrate his investigations, Mackey’s presentation got the bulk of the time with a 45 minute lecture on the sorted history of agriculture, focusing on the up and coming ecological era that Whole Foods is arguably a major leader in influencing.
Even though Whole Foods may not be the grass fed, local, family farm Mecca that critics aspire it to be, Pollan challenged the audience not to see this as a fight between “the good guys and the bad guys.” Mackey’s five-minute video of industrial animal cruelty was a good reminder that everyone’s ultimate goal at this lecture is to move away from the previous generation’s animal husbandry. Pollan conceded that there is not only one true way to sustainably produce and eat, and if consumers think through the impact of their food choices, they are supporting a sustainable future.
Whole Foods has taken some hard hits since The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out. Mackey teased Pollan by suggesting, amongst other factors; Pollan is to blame for Whole Foods lower stock prices and loss of revenue. It wasn’t clear if there was truth behind the jab. Mackey did claim that after the book hit shelves, customers demanded products that Whole Foods could not provide quickly enough, such as grass fed beef.
Mackey encouraged the audience to let go of the “Whole Paycheck” cliché and see Whole Foods as a more dynamic corporation. For example, those higher prices go to programs that benefit small family farms world wide, fair trade practices and purchasing from poverty-stricken areas.
Whole Foods plans on creating a new set of organic rating standards that will be implemented by a third party for all food retailers. The 5 star system will focus on positive animal welfare conditions, sustainability for the environment, soil fertility, worker conditions and fair trade,
When asked about the dilemma in getting these expensive, nutrient rich foods to people with less money, Mackey didn’t think his answer through quickly enough and suggested people are getting wealthier and more should be able to afford organics. This led to boos and hisses from the passionate Berkeley audience. Quickly he changed directions and addressed the question quite well by saying, “If you are willing to cook, food is not that expensive, especially if you buy seasonally.” Approving applause followed.
Mackey summed up with “Whole Foods has many internal contradictions,” and reminded the audience that there is no blueprint to follow when running a corporation like Whole Foods, but “critics help us to grow.”
Pollan left the audience with an answer to the question he gets asked the most: What should I eat? “Let your food choices reflect your values.”
I’d love to hear your comments on the debate here on DivineCaroline. You can also read my food blog, Deglazed, which is a mix of Restaurant Reviews, Farmers Market Reports and Gastronomer Spotlights.