Un Whole-y Foods. ~ Jade Sevelow

Via elephant journal
on Apr 13, 2013
get elephant's newsletter

whole foods twitter cnbc compnaies

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.


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


66 Responses to “Un Whole-y Foods. ~ Jade Sevelow”

  1. Bill says:

    I do agree. Every store uses secret shoppers to evaluate employees, and if I owned a business I would do the same.Bill

  2. laura h says:

    I am an informed shopper, so none of this was news to me.

  3. Maggie says:

    I was going to leave a long comment, but I see that many others have already said it all. I certainly do not fall head over heels for Whole Foods; in fact, I find the place pretty annoying. However, this is a really ridiculous list and it actually makes me want to unsubscribe from elephant for sharing it. I'm sorry I bothered to read the whole thing through, thinking that certainly, it would get better…nope, I was wrong.

  4. Staci says:

    My sentiments exactly

  5. Joe says:

    Thanks Maggie for saying exactly what I wanted to say. Silly silly silly article!

  6. Kris says:

    Sorry, but this is a very poor article with weak arguments and obviously written by someone with an agenda against Whole Foods. Anyone who doesn't know that Whole Foods sells non-organic produce and GMO's, and that their pizza is "still pizza", probably knows very little about nutrition and doesn't read labels. And since when is an organization using secret shoppers to test the customer service skills of their employees new OR a bad thing? Clearly this person has never run their own company or managed/supervised anything in their life. As a previous commenter mentioned, it us up to every consumer to be educated and is not the responsibility of the organization to make sure that the consumer is aware of every last detail and label. They have not misrepresented themselves at all.

    For the record, I don't shop at Whole Foods because I have a Trader Joe's local and prefer their low prices. But this is just the latest string of poorly written Elephant Journal articles that have me this close to unsubscribing.

  7. Mobius says:

    Except for #2, all these are totally obvious to anyone but the dumbest person. Why in the world would anyone think their pizza doesn't have the same fat content as any other pizza? This isn't really an insider's secret insight. Employees have to act and speak a certain way? Welcome to retail.

    "Are you mad yet? Frustrated? Feel lied to? Me too." Um, no. No. And no. Oh, unless you mean 'at you' for wasting my time reading this.

  8. docbon89 says:

    I also agree. If your default mode is to be friendly and helpful to all customers whenever and however possible, then you should not be afraid. If you would act differently if you knew there were NO secret shoppers, you just made the argument for them. What I don't agree with is how the results are utilized to shape behavior. A supervisor or manager should share these privately with individuals who need to do better, and to outline how to do that. If the employee continually cannot meet the standards, then he or she can and should rightfully be let go.

  9. docbon89 says:

    I agree with much of what you say. I do want to comment on giving away produce to food banks or the like. My husband volunteers for our local food bank and he goes to stores and restaurants to pick up excess inventory. I cannot comment on laws in other states, but in NC, once the retailer gives the food to the food bank, it has absolutely no remaining liability for what happens after that. Now if the store had it on good information that the food bank was not careful with its food and people often became sick because of that, the store could stand on moral ground and say it does not want to support that. But otherwise, there is no liability and most hungry and poor people would rather have some produce that is a little over-ripe but not rotten, than to constantly have to eat canned and frozen fruits and vegetables that have been processed. I know at our food bank they are also careful to throw away food – or give it to the local animal farmers who feed it to their livestock – when it is clearly a health risk for people to consume.

  10. asirah says:

    These bulletins you've laid out about what you dislike all seem pretty exaggerated. First and foremost – Whole Foods has to offer conventional fruits and veggies, which will naturally have pesticide residue since they're conventional. This is unavoidable, if WFM stopped selling conventional produce they'd lose a massive amount of customers. The exact same point goes for foods that contain GMOs – this is again unavoidable, they would lose a massive amount of customers and a really large amount of products that are carried. The idea is to offer options, some people genuinely don't care about GMOs or conventional produce, why shouldn't they have the option of purchasing those products? At any rate, WFM is currently in the process of requiring all vendors to label their products if they do contain GMOs, vendors have 5 years (until 2018) to do this or their products will be removed from the shelves.

    As far as employees being terrified…Wow what an exaggeration! When I worked in the store I wasn't terrified, I was cautious about being mystery shopped but not bothered to walk guests to the aisle they were looking for. Yes, that is a policy, but what company doesn't have their own business model requiring these types of actions which set them apart from other companies? WFM is known for exceptional customer service. When I worked retail, every company I worked for utilized mystery shoppers.

    Of course a lot of the products WFM carries are unhealthy – there's absolutely no advertisement whatsoever that says everything on the shelves is good for you. It is, however, higher quality and much more scrutinized than what makes it onto the shelves at Walmart. It is literally impossible to hold every customer's hands in their decision making. They put what information they can out, within reason, to make education possible for guests – if they choose not to take advantage of that the company cannot be held responsible.

    I understand that everyone has their preferences and you're entitled to yours… But these points you make are pretty slanderous and for the most part exaggerated. Whole Foods Market is one of the best companies out there, the standards are unbelievably high, they take care of their employees, they genuinely care about consumers and give back to ALL communities in ways I've never heard of from other huge corporations. All in all – I'd say WFM is a wonderful company.

  11. asirah says:

    Just so you know… Not everything carried by Trader Joe's is organic and nonGMO – actually most of their store brand stuff is total crap.

  12. Karin says:

    There is not much here that is news to me. I’m just a regular customer at WF, and if you read their signage and any of their materials or labels, this is all kind of obvious. You ‘don’t bash’ them for a lot of things that they are not claiming to be or do, and I don’t think any regular customer of WF — or anyone other than the very naïve — thinks they are purely non-GMO, organic, perfect in every way. What they are is a big step up from the downward spiral that grocery store have been taking for decades. I can read and understand the difference between organic and conventional. I can read labels. I just don’t get the point of this article.

  13. Mary Low says:

    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.?

  14. Bradley says:

    You were taught wrong. Go head, bury your head in the sand and continue to eat the crap that corporate America dishes out to you. I prefer to get all the information I can from various sources, and then make the best choices for my family. I appreciate this bit of intel from a former employee, it just further accentuates things I have heard from others who used to work there.

  15. Brad says:

    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.

  16. Ellie says:

    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.