Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dear John Mackey

re: The Past, Present, and Future of Food

Dear John Mackey

I am one of those people who hasn't read further than the first chapter quite finished Pollan's Omnivore Dilemma yet which means I probably attended your debate last night with less cynicism than many in the audience. But when you made a statement I knew for a fact, beyond any shadow of a doubt, to be untrue I started to question everything else you were saying. Yep, you made a cynic out of me, a previously happy Wholefoods customer.

Last night you said this: "In the UK there was one farmers market in 1997".

My reply is this: "I remember visiting this Farmers Market as a teen. I am now 40. In the mid to late 90s I was living in Greenwich London where, at the that time, there was a local, fully organic farmers' market which I visited every Saturday morning to do my weekly shop. There were also organic delivery boxes available in that area. I don't know where you got that misinformation from. Maybe it was from that American woman who claims to have invented London's Farmers' Markets?

So, if I am acutely aware that particular statement wasn't true, how can I be sure all your other statements also weren't true? How can I trust you?

2005 | Our New Home - Cleaning the oven.

© 2007 Sam Breach at "Becks & Posh", This RSS Feed is for personal non-commercial use only. If you are not reading this material in your news aggregator, or at the aforementioned url, the site you are looking at might be guilty of copyright infringement. Please contact[AT]gmail[DOT]com to report any suspected violations. Thank you.
Dear John Mackey


  • At 28/2/07 08:47, Anonymous Jennifer said…

    Sam, I had a bit of trouble getting the webcast up last night but stayed up well past midnight EST to watch it. I may have missed the first 15 minutes but did Michael Pollan make a presentation at the start? If not, it seemed more like an apologia for Whole Foods and then a kiss and make up session for Pollan and Mackey. If Mackey thinks that The Omnivore's Dilemma hurt his stock prices he should just say so and not hem and haw-Pollan can take it.

    And did I miss it or did John Mackey NOT mention the recent buyout of Wild Oats?

    Then, it was interesting to wake up this morning to find a Whole Foods story in the Dining section by Marion Burros that didn't even mention last night...the article wasn't particularly good press for Whole Foods either.

  • At 28/2/07 09:26, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    He also said Americans' wealth is increasing, when in fact, we're seeing a growing divide between the wealthy and the poor, with a vanishing middle class. So he recommends that Americans bite the bullet and pay proportionately more of our disgressionary income for food, like the British do... but do you have to pay for your own health care in the UK, like we do in the US? Because that drastically chips into my buying power for other niceties.

  • At 28/2/07 09:28, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    I love your blog but I have to say I think it is a bit reactionary to get so up in arms (no pun intended) about the UK farmers market issue. I understand that facts are important, and that big things happen based on people's understandings of facts, i.e. policy reform and worldviews . But Mackey's general point about the farmers markets seemed to have been that people have begun to value local,sustainable food, thus more farmers markets have sprung up and become more viable.

    I attended the Pollan/Mackey debate and came away with the impression that both men had strikingly similar visions about the future of food culture. See the blog post written by Amy Sherman on KQED Bay Area Bites.

    As a trained anthropologist I probably could have taken issue with some of the facts he presented about earlier types of food/human systems, but I really didn't pay that much attention to it.

    Due to the talk/debate, I came away from the talk with a more favorable impression of Whole Foods than I had had before. I just don't know how productive it is to dismiss Mackey/WF due to his comments about UK farmers markets.

    What do you think?

  • At 28/2/07 10:24, Blogger V Smoothe said…

    The notion that the first farmer's market in the UK opened in Bath in 1997 is a pretty widely reported "fact" (?) in the international press - and is claimed by FARMA itself.

    So if Mackey is wrong in this, then he certainly isn't the only one. a quick google search will turn up dozens of claims to the same.

  • At 28/2/07 10:38, Blogger Sam said…

    Jennifer - there was an intro by Pollan, so you did miss that perspective.

    Cookiecrumb - no you don't have to pay for any health care in the Uk unless you choose to go private.

    S - anon - please don't be scared to leave your name - this is an adult conversation so I won't be offended if you leave your real name and in fact would prefer it of you did. You words will have more value if you stand by by endorsing them with your identity.

    I realise my point was rather petty but I guess what I was trying to illustrate was the fact that now with certainty "I just don't know how to trust every thing he says". I guess my world view of being a Brit is that I have been aware of those organic issues for 20 years, and don't feel that by 1997 it was anything new to the UK at that time. At least not from the pespective of my personal world view. The Brits have been into organic for a long time.

    Also I have been a staunch defender of Wholefoods in the past, in online discussions, I always felt they were being picked on. I actually came away from the talk with a less favorable impression of Whole Foods than I had had before, so the exact opposite happened to me than what happened to you.

    I mean - how could he show that horrific film about how animals are treated and then sell products that had been raised in that way and not warn his customers about it?

    I always felt safer at WF, had the feeling that I was less unlikely to buy horrifically produced food at WF, but now I am not so sure any more.

    The evening left me confused and worried actually.

    Having said all that, I won't stop shopping there for my sundries from time to time, I will always choose them over TJs and Safeway et al, but I will continue to buy meat and eggs only from a direct local source where I can be sure that the animals have been pastured, and that the minced beef is not from a spent dairy cow.

  • At 28/2/07 10:40, Blogger Sam said…

    v smoothe - are you telling me the memory of my whole life is a lie?
    Just because something isn't recorded or reported, doesn't mean to say it didn't happen.

  • At 28/2/07 10:56, Blogger Amy Sherman said…

    May I weigh in on this one? There does seem to be some debate about what actually constitutes a farmers market in the UK. Take a look at this article:,,681841,00.html

    Sam, perhaps the markets you recall were not all local producers? It seems like a silly debate to me, a market with fresh produce sold out of doors fits the bill just fine as far as I'm concerned. But it does seem to fit the agenda of FARMA to make the apparently widely accepted claim that they were "first".

  • At 28/2/07 10:59, Blogger Sara said…

    Sam - I thought the evening was quite interesting. On the whole, I was mostly impressed with Mackey, having gone in there with a pretty neutral view. I did think that he fumbled the wealth/expense (why are whole foods so expensive?) question quite royally, and it's a bit too bad that Pollan didn't answer that question, because I've heard him answer it before quite well (and in fact have both the video and the transcript of that response from The Future of Food's SF premiere at the Castro. perhaps I should post that somewhere?)

    Anyway, I'm curious about the mistake about the first farmers' market in England and while V Smoothe's point seems to be that he isn't the only one to have this (mis)information, I wonder why he doesn't have better sources. Perhaps if Farma is also stating this, maybe they're using specific rules to define FMs that hadn't been met before 1997? Not defending Mackey here ;) just curious about the error. Any thoughts on that?

  • At 28/2/07 11:03, Blogger Sam said…

    I guess farmers markets that excisted bbefore the regulation of farmers don't count. That makes me sad.
    Bristol's market has history going back hundreds of years from when they used to sell corn there.

    And Owen, a Bay area blogger who was at University in Bristol remembers doing his farmers market shopping there in 1984. He left a comment on the post I wrote about the Bristol Farmers market.

    I doubt they weren't local back then - the roads were not as good as they are today and it wouldn't have been easy for the farmers to travel long distance.

    Bristol lies in the heart of farm country.

  • At 28/2/07 11:48, Blogger V Smoothe said…

    My point was simply that, whether farmer's markets in England existed before 1997 or not, it seems foolish to condemn everything Mackey says simply because he repeated the conventional wisdom endorsed by the UK's major farmer's market certification entity.

    I deal with these issues frequently when it comes to my areas of expertise. Often, I'll read an article or a book dealing with a tangentially related topic that repeats "facts" that I know to be either untrue or a vast simplification of the reality about a subject I've studied extensively. Often I'll find this in otherwise well-researched and insightful works. As frustrating as it may be, it doesn't make any sense to dismiss the entire work as inaccurate because of a relatively minor and oft-repeated error, especially one endorsed by seemingly reputable sources. Otherwise, I would have to reject out of hand about 90% of the literature in my field.

    Oh, and in response to one of your later comments - Whole Foods does not sell animals that have been raised in the manner shown in the video. That was, I think, the point of the video. WF sells only humanely raised meat. You can read more about their farm certification process here. As I understood Mackey's comments, he wants to implement a rating system in their stores that would allow for a differentiation to mark suppliers who exceed their current standards (that is, I think that a farm meeting the current metrics would rate 1 star on the five star scale).

  • At 28/2/07 12:01, Blogger Sam said…

    Yes - maybe it was foolish to condemn him on one point, but I think it would have been even more foolish to blindly accept everything he said.

    Plus it has opened up this conversation and gven you a sandbox, so something great has come out of it.

    And that wasn't simply it, that was just the one thing I could prove emphatically from my own personal experience. There were many other things he said I was suspicious of, but don't know for sure.

    I understood the same as you re the ratings system, but what I took from it was that I would personally only want to buy 5 star rated meat, the absolute best of the best, from the most well treated animals. Since he said WF is only currently at one star on average, I prefer to buy my meat from local farmers than from Wholefoods, and I do, actually , this is how I behave. We all know about Rosie's Chickens for example. They can go outside, but they don't. But they pass the WF system anyway. I don't *really* know what is going on there.

    I need that second barcode so i can see it for myself.

  • At 28/2/07 12:29, Blogger Chubbypanda said…


    I agree with both your caution in accepting everything Mackey presented, and with Jennifer's characterization of a large part of the presentation as an apologia for Whole Foods. What I found most disturbing were the softball questions Pollan served Mackey, as well as the tabling of questions from the audience after Mackey showed displeasure over the first two. I think Mackey's most honest moments were when he was fumbling those questions.

    I've got a detailed opinion piece and real-time notes that I took during the presentation up on my blog here.

    Ultimately, I'm not any more or well inclined to shop at Whole Foods than I was before the presentation. I'm still going to get most of my produce from the local farmers' market, and my meat and processed foods from Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, or Mother's Market. On the other hand, I'm determined to be more aware of what I'm buying, and to demand more transparency from food producers.

    I'm wondering what your take on the Q&A session was.

  • At 28/2/07 15:25, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 28/2/07 15:29, Blogger FaustianBargain said…

    edited version>

    two thoughts:

    1. there is nothing wrong with paying more for good/quality food.

    2. my solution: to eat less. our planet can afford to feed hunger. it cannot sustain gluttony. so, have more sex. eat less.

  • At 28/2/07 15:55, Blogger ric and terry said…

    I listened to the webcast last night and John Mackey is such an inspiration. I love the way he ended his Power Point with the words of Michelangelo: Criticize by Creating. John went on to say it is the duty of entrepreneurs to create the products that allow the consumer to have a choice. Then he sets up a fund to allow these entrepreneurs to create these products. This guy gets it …..

  • At 28/2/07 17:02, Anonymous kungfoodie kat said…

    i'm with Faustian

  • At 28/2/07 17:20, Blogger Owen said…

    Hi Sam,

    the Owen referenced above speaking. It was actually even earlier than I originally said. I was at Bristol from fall 81 to Summer 84. I didn't get to the market until fall 82 but that was the first time.

    To be honest - I don't remember what they called it - maybe back then they weren't CALLED farmer's markets, but that is surely what they were. Local produce (including eggs and meats) with decent information about sourcing. Not all organic at that time and not even over 50% organic, but what was organic said so. There was non local produce as well but it all said where it was from - even back then that was the law. So a Farmer's Market in all but name. (And just as good then as most are right now).

    And there were others I had been to in other places - I just can't give you the exact places and times.

    I also remember way back when (I was four or five so just about 40 years ago) when Sainsburys was a single aisle and nothing in the store was pre-packaged. We didn't go there much though. We went to the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, the greengrocer, etc. I do remember things like hanging pheasants and hare - all local. Morning baked bread (REALLY good - in my memory none of the current artisan bakers match up) and so on. THAT is what I would love to get back to.

    On to WF - didn't watch that talk and am willing to credit WF with being more moral and upright than all other chain groceries - but that's it - would take local every time. In fact I think local is more important than organic - I'd take the local fertilized Gravenstein apple over the Chilean organic Braeburn every time.

    Good discussion by the way - am enjoying it.

  • At 28/2/07 21:19, Anonymous Bonnie/Dairy Queen said…

    hi Sam -- that video was trés horrible for sure, but I think it served as a useful reminder of the origins of the meat that most Americans do eat and don't know it. It certainly made me feel sick and guilty about the factory chicken I ate in Arizona last weekend at a wedding.

    fyi, you may notice that your commenter Ric above has been posting the same exact comment about the webcast at several food blogs...turns out Ric is a sales guy for Whale Tail Chips. They're distributed by Whole Foods.

  • At 28/2/07 22:42, Blogger Chubbypanda said…

    Nice one, Bonnie!

  • At 28/2/07 22:46, Blogger Sam said…

    Thanks for the backup Owen. You know - I am certain the Greenwich Farmers market was just bunch of local farmers who drove to london from somewhere outside the city (they are farmers - they need land after all), and that they would have been local enough. Remember everyone, that Britain is smaller than California, the farmer wasn't going to have driven 400 miles from Scotland every week to sell meat, that's for sure. I think because they were quietly pioneering before farmers markets were regulated or 'official', they were simply off the mass media radar, that's all. They didn't have promotion or a marketing complany.

    Someone came along and made a deal and business out of Famers Markets in 1997 and beyond, it would appear, but I would put myself on the line and refuse to believe they invented the notion of the British Farmer's market.

    Bonnie - I am incredulous about your comment. I am heading to your blog right now to see if you have filled in the details on your blog.

    thank you.


  • At 28/2/07 22:47, Blogger Sam said…

    chubby panda - thanks for the link - I am going to read that too.

  • At 28/2/07 22:54, Blogger Sam said…


    i cant leave you a comment on your blog. What I said was this:

    thank you!

    About the questions, I wrote one, as did the person sitting next to me, but the thing was that in the time that they were delivered to Pollan he asked them both anyway - one was about the current rating of WF meat on the 1-5 scale they want to introduce (answer, 1) and the other was about answering to shareholders.

    It could have been that the topic of many of the audience questions had been answered or broached upon in the meantime.

    i had this same problem leading a comment on my sister's blog earlier - there is no visual verification present so I am unable to post the comment

  • At 28/2/07 23:16, Blogger Chubbypanda said…


    No worries. Looks like Blogger might be on the fritz again. Makes me tempted to fly back up to SJC, swing through Mountain View to kick some ass, then visit my folks in Saratoga. I miss the Bay Area...

    I appreciate the clarification on the questions. From the webcast, it looked like Pollan eased up a bit on Mackey after Mackey started to lose his temper.


Post a Comment

<< Home