Like a petty criminal who progresses to increasingly more serious crimes,Whole Foods Market violations of state and federal law have been escalating. They've gone from defrauding their customers to adopting food preparation practices that actually endanger them. And that's not all.
Known sardonically as "Whole Paycheck" for their outrageous prices, Whole Foods has been guilty of widespread cheating. New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) investigators found last year that the company systematically ripped off unwitting customers by "routinely" overstating the weight of pre-packaged foods–including meats, seafood, dairy and baked goods. The co-CEO called these thefts "mistakes."
That travesty followed the $800,000 settlement the previous year with the City Attorneys of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Diego after Whole Foods stores were found not to be accounting for the weight of containers at their already over-priced salad bars.
Whole Foods bills itself as "America's Healthiest Grocery Store," even trademarking the term.
Yet in a devastating June 8 warning letter–one of the most severe compliance actions that the FDA has at its disposal–the FDA said Whole Foods was manufacturing, packaging and storing food in ways that promoted contamination with microorganisms that cause food poisoning.
Among the long list of serious problems identified during multiple inspections in February at a 70,000-square foot facility that supplies prepared foods and other products to 74 stores across eight states were foods like pasta and mushroom quesadillas prepared or stored in places where condensation was dripping from ceilings, a doorway and a fan.
In addition, the company kept dirty dishes near food, did not supply hot water at some hand-washing sinks and allowed high-pressure hoses used for cleaning to spray food-preparation areas.
Last year, Whole Foods had to recall batches of its curry chicken salad and a pasta salad from East Coast stores after the products were found during a routine inspection of the same plant to be contaminated with a nasty bacterium called Listeria.
So Whole Foods is certainly not the safest grocery store for consumers. But does it live up to the claim that it is the healthiest?
Whole Foods' disingenuousness in communicating with customers is as bad as its deficient food preparation and storage. Central to the company's inflated pricing are the misleading representations about its organic food offerings.
On its webpage, Whole Foods purposefully perpetuates the myth that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. It asks rhetorically, "[I]s organic food more nutritious? This question has been the source of a lot of discussion in the past few years...and we're feeling pretty optimistic about some of the new research."
The company must have a low threshold for optimism, because itcites shoddy, cherry-picked research from biased sources.
For instance, it singles out "leading research" by the Organic Center, an outfit directed by organic food and supplement makers including Mike Ferry, the president of Horizon Organic, and Meg Hirshberg, the wife of organic activist, Stonyfield co-founder and chairman Gary Hirshberg.
Whole Foods then directs consumers only to the Organic Trade Association, the Rodale Institute (whose motto is, "organic pioneers since 1947"), and "research" from a Washington State University webpage. The WSU link isn't even research; it's an essay that argues that the United States Department of Agriculture should "prohibit the use of manure from non-organic farms," in order to allow organic food marketers "to support their claims of addressing climate change."
The WSU harangue has nothing to do with Whole Foods' claim that organic food is more nutritious. And not surprisingly, Whole Foods fails to acknowledge evidence that debunks the organic-is-healthier hoax. For example, a widely-publicized, peer-reviewed analysis published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University's Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for "organic" were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts.
This sort of deception and false advertising by Whole Foods should be the basis for action by state and federal regulators.
Given the huge price premium for organic foods (and other products, including linens and clothing), one might well ask, "Why organic?" Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture when rules for organic certification were formulated, provided the answer:
Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality.
That is worth repeating: The USDA organic designation has nothing to do with food safety, nutrition or quality.
Regulators should crack down not only on Whole Foods' overcharging (a crime that the criminal code calls "larceny by false conveyance") and serious health-related violations of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but also on the company's deceptive representations of organic products, which is obviously for the purpose of bilking consumers by persuading them to buy higher-priced, higher profit-margin items.
Consumers deserve honesty, respect and integrity. They're not getting it from Whole Foods.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow and the director of the Risk Analysis Division at the National Center for Public Policy Research.