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April 14, 2013

Un Whole-y Foods. ~ Jade Sevelow

A former employee comes clean about the Good, the Sad & the Greenwashing at Whole Foods.

I know most of us love Whole Foods for its wonderful ideals, helpful employees, organic food, and gluten-free choices, but…I have a laundry list of things I dislike about Whole Foods.

As a former employee, I’ve seen the inner workings of a company that I consider to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In fact, that’s my number one (organic) beef with them; they allow you to believe exactly what they want you to believe, no matter what the cost is to you, because it makes you feel better about your choices.

Let’s get one thing straight though, I’m not here to bash Whole Foods to its holy grave. They do a lot of things that help us make better choices, and support the environment, and I’d be happy to list those out in detail in my next post, but right now I’m here to highlight some of the ugly parts of the company.

If you get mad at the things I’m about to tell you, then I’m doing my job, and if you want to keep believing Whole Foods is the end all/be all of your health and well-being, then you should probably stop reading now and save yourself the heart-burn.

1. Not everything in Whole Foods is healthy.

I did a stint in prepared foods…and trust me, that potato salad or grilled chicken breast still contains as much mayo and canola oil as anyone else’s. Everything is laid out beautifully in glass cases, the serving dishes and utensils are changed mid-day in order to keep a fresh appearance, and even the pizza looks like it could be healthy.

But read the ingredients; pizza is still pizza, and the smoked mozzarella salad that everyone loves so much is loaded with fat, cheese and wheat (I have nothing against wheat, by the way). Just because bacon wrapped asparagus is behind that beautiful glass window doesn’t mean it wasn’t covered in canola oil so it didn’t stick to the grill, not to mention it’s still bacon, and no, Whole Foods bacon doesn’t contain any less fat than regular bacon. And here’s the worst secret—those delicious cookies you find in that pretty case by the bakery, you know, the peanut butter macadamia, or vegan chocolate chip? Each cookie has almost 500 calories and 18 grams of fat.

2. They’ve got pretty fancy wording. “Our Products are certified GMO-free.”

Oh, really?

Here’s the real low down on that marketing. Yes, Whole Foods brand 365 products are certified GMO free, but Whole Foods still sells foods that have GMOs in them.

Remember when Kashi got busted for using GMO soy protein? Did you see the Kashi products on your Whole Foods shelf disappear? No. You didn’t because Whole Foods’ wording is: “Our products are GMO free,” not “Every product in this store is GMO free.”

That said, this is changing transparency-wise: kudos. ~ ed.

It’s even clearly spelled out on their website that products in the store contain GMO’s. But who reads that? People who walk in the door aren’t deciphering 365 products from the rest. Whole Foods knows that, and they are perfectly content letting people go on believing they aren’t getting GMO’s simply because they bought it there. In fact, they sell hundreds of products from companies owned by the big conglomerates you love to hate.

Naked is owned by Pepsi; Odwalla, Honest Tea, and Simply Orange are owned by Coca-Cola; Kashi is owned by Kellogg; Silk is owned by Dean Foods; and Cascadian Farms, Larabar and Muir Glen are owned by General Mills.

Take that to the bank! And let me remind you, just because you bought your fake bacon at Whole Foods doesn’t mean it’s healthier than the Morning Star Farms (owned by Kellogg) you’d buy at Shop and Save. And on a side note, yes, their meats (aside from certified organic) are most definitely fed GMO grain. No, they do not require that animals (other than organic) are fed GMO free diets and no, it is not any more or less regulated than anywhere else.

In Whole Foods’ defense, they do have a simple rating system that will tell you all about your meats and fish, how they were raised, and what kind of life they had prior to slaughter in order for you to make an informed decision. But they certainly aren’t coming out and saying, your piece of ‘all natural’ flank steak was fed GMO grain.

3. Their conventional fruits and veggies contain just as much pesticides as anywhere else.

While Whole Foods loves to remind people they are the largest certified organic grocer in the U.S. (which is awesome), that does not mean they carry only organic produce. They are still a for-profit company, and they must meet demands of millions of people.

However, each time anyone walks in the door of a Whole Foods they’re greeted with a beautiful array of colors, smells and samples of delicious fruit and vegetables, making it easy to think, “How could any of these possibly be bad for me?”

Whole Foods does do a great job separating their organics and conventional products on the floor and in the coolers so they don’t touch, but I can’t count the times that a palate of produce would come off the truck with the conventional stacked on top of the organic, leading to a possible contamination. I was often terrified unpack the grapes with bare hands because each palate of conventional grapes came with its own personal package of pesticides that made my hands chalky. Walk into any grocery store worldwide and notice how they separate organic and conventional produce. Plastic dividers, bagged goods or separate tables are in play everywhere because if a grocery store wants to label something organic, they all have to play by the same rules. This stuff isn’t Whole Foods exclusive.

4. Many times their employees are so helpful because they’re terrified.

Yes, you heard me. Notice how when you ask for anything the person you’re talking to will put down everything they’re doing and walk you to whatever you’re looking for? And when they’re done, they’ll thank you and wish you a good day? It’s really nice to hear and in fact it’s really nice to say. But the truth is, employees are told from day one this is exactly how they must do it, and are also told that they will be secret shopped. Yes, Whole Foods hires secret shoppers who are instructed to ask certain questions, remember whether or not employees greeted them appropriately, “Hi, how can I help you”, or whether they wished them a good day. It’s simply exhausting to spend your day thinking every customer is there to tattle on you if you don’t do it correctly. And on top of it when the scores do come out, they are posted publicly, sent out in an email and at the next store meeting read aloud in from of the entire staff.

5. They are committed to helping the environment, most of the time, unless it’s inconvenient for them.

Yes, providing organic and local choices is always wonderful. Outside gardens and eating areas are nice, and who doesn’t love all the house plants and the generous, commendable community bike tune up kits. They plan on purchasing 458 gigawatt hours of wind energy credits, and they support community driven projects like compost giveaways. But how about the open egg, dairy and prepared foods cases that are in almost every store cooling the neighborhood? And the prepared foods take home boxes; they aren’t at all recyclable or compostable? Yea, no kidding. They certainly look like they could be either, with that fancy recycle symbol and “Eco Box” labeling, but they’re lined with plastic that can neither be recycled nor composted. Look in the eating area. Are there plastic utensils with no ‘for here’ options? Metal utensils generally have too high of a ‘disappearing rate’ so they aren’t given as an option. [Ed: Same thing with mugs: on a recent visit I couldn’t get a for-here mug for my coffee, so I left. Even Starbucks offers for-here, if we ask]. Well what about compostable ones, you ask? While working as a Green Mission representative for a store, I was told that Whole Foods couldn’t source non-GMO compostable utensils and that most ‘compostable’ utensils actually don’t break down in time for commercial composting, so they weren’t looking at it as an option. Come on I say! You’re Whole Foods, you can source anything you want! Is virgin, non-recyclable, plastic really better than possible GMO not-fully-compostable corn? I don’t know…honestly, they’re both terrible to me, so offer the washable metal! I swear I won’t steal them!

6. With the amount of food Whole Foods throws away, they could feed entire cities.

At one of the stores I worked at (I worked at two), Whole Foods did donate many non-perishable and produce items to Community Food Share, but the reality is that it was easier to throw it away or compost it than find a place to store it, or try to plead with employees to take the time to separate it. What you also don’t see is that Whole Foods put a five-day discard date on everything (even though the general rule for grocery stores is seven). Except, it needs to be thrown away or composted before that 5th day, so if you make it on Monday, it has ’til Friday, but they instruct employees to discard of it Thursday night. They have a strict policy of not letting employees take any food home, and an even more strict policy of not discounting going-out-of-date product because it gives off an impression they do not feel is within their standards. AKA, it attracts the wrong crowd. People all over the world suffer from malnourishment or die of starvation every day, some of Whole Foods’ own employees even struggle get by [though Whole Foods does win best to work for, year after year ~ ed.], yet they won’t allow food to go anywhere but the composter out of fear of attracting the ‘discount’ crowd and having it turn into a nuisance.

Are you mad yet? Frustrated? Feel lied to? Me too.

My point here isn’t to crucify Whole Foods, though it may seem that way: they do go above and beyond most grocery stores. My point is that they are on a high horse, when the reality is that they pick their battles, just like everyone else. They choose to point out the great things they are doing, and sweep the ugly stuff under the rug. It’s brilliant marketing and they are making millions off of image.

You could argue much of this is someone simply venting because they hate “Whole Paycheck” But the honest truth is, when I worked there, I shopped there. I liked the products they had and I enjoyed the ambiance just like everyone else! But this list is not the list of a disgruntled shopper. I witnessed these things first hand. And let me tell you, writing this did not come without some fear of angry emails.

So let’s just call a spade a spade: Whole Foods isn’t as holy as they’d like you to believe, but you like shopping there because it makes you feel like you are making good choices; and they like that you like that.

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Ellie Oct 4, 2013 8:06am

None of it is really surprising….except for the food waste issue. It’s apalling that in this day and age all this food goes into the compost bin. Surely they could make arrangement with local shelters and food pantries for daily pick-up. They could even do it without publicity if they are so worried about their brand dilution. Right now the states, due to the government shutdown, are sending out letters that the WIC benefits will run out as early as the 15th, and many kids and single moms will be going hungry as that happens. Meals on wheels? I am not sure how they are financed, but they could probably use some help as well.

Brad Oct 4, 2013 7:38am

By the way, Whole Foods, along with all the other grocery conglomerates, chose NOT to support prop 522 in the state of Washington, requiring labeling of GMO products, and to be voted on in Nov. 2013. What does that tell you? It tells you that Whole Foods is more interested in big-profits and continued deception to its customer base. Labeling of GMOs might actually show the truth about how many GMO products they actually sell. There is nothing wrong with being profit-motivated, but at least be honest about it.

Mary Low Oct 4, 2013 4:56am

Thank you so much for your article about Whole Foods. I would like a list of shops who do not sell food containing GMO's. Is it impossible to find one.?

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