Whole Foods and the Health Care Debate

By Heather Horn
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Photo by aaron gustafson/Flickr CC


A number of bloggers are currently talking about why they are not intending to boycott Whole Foods, organic supermarket chain par excellence. What's the backstory here?

The controversy over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's anti-ObamaCare stance is now well into its third round. It all started with Mackey's August 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In it, Mackey argued that "the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system." He presented, instead, The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare:

  1. 1.) "Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts."
  2. 2.) "Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits."
  3. 3.) Allow competition across state lines.
  4. 4.) "Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover."
  5. 5.) "Enact tort reform."
  6. 6.) "Make costs transparent."
  7. 7.) "Enact medicare reform."
  8. 8.) Revise tax law to make it easier to donate to those without insurance.

Then came the backlash. Brian Beutler of TPM noted the inclusion of a diet endorsement in the op-ed, and offered a translation of Mackey's manifesto: ""Whole Foods is the solution to all of America's health care woes." Other attackers had less time for mockery, and demanded a boycott:

I Will Never, Ever Shop at Your Stores Again Users at the Daily Kos screamed their outrage, other bloggers linking to their hot-blooded denunciations. "Mr. Mackey," wrote one user named DarkSyde, "your extremist views on employee benefits and unionization  have [...] mostly flown under the progressive radar to date." DarkSyde called Mackey's "screed on healthcare" a "lapse of business acumen not seen since New Coke," and wondered whether Mackey knew exactly whom it was that shopped at Whole Foods ("a lot of progressives," DarkSyde wrote). The user demanded a retraction of the op-ed or announced that he or she would "never, ever" shop at Whole Foods again. More measured declarations of boycott were also made. A "Vanderbilt physician" contended that "Mr. Mackey's ill-informed article does tremendous harm to the cause of health care reform."

Mackey's Response: The WSJ Put Words in My MouthThree days after the initial op-ed, John Mackey stated on the Whole Foods CEO's Blog that "Whole Foods Market as a company has no official position on the issue." Saying that he had written the editorial under the simple title of "Health Care Reform," had never mentioned the president by name, and that "an editor at the Journal rewrote the headline [...] which led to antagonist feelings by many," he published his unedited version, welcoming "civil" debate on the topic.

Not Off the Hook, declared The Reality-Based Community's Mark Kleiman, referring to Mackey's response: "The title is the least offensive thing about the piece," which was "astonishingly disingenuous." He, too, said he would boycott.

Boycott Not the Worst Idea, mused superblogger Matthew Yglesias of Think Progress, writing that he agreed with Mark Kleiman. "Very few businesses," he pointed out, "go as far as Whole Foods in marketing their products specifically as part of a quasi-politicized left-wing lifestyle and few CEOs go as far as Mackey in public advocacy of political views that are only tangentially related to his business." Having shareholders think twice about a CEO's foray into the health care debate might be a "good thing."

Others found the boycott calls absurd:

I Ain't About to Boycott Whole Foods, Waylon Lewis declared from The Huffington Post on Saturday. He gave three reasons: 1) "Whole Foods is a vast organization, with thousands of staff, many if not most of whom disagree with John's [...] views"; 2) Whole Foods is a public company; 3) "Whole Foods, thanks to [John Mackey's] leadership, has shown the way for thousands of green-minded companies."

ABC Co-Anchor Weighs In "Liberal Customers to Whole Foods CEO: Shut Up!" yelled John Stossel of ABC News' "20/20". "Perhaps," he suggested, "what the 'natural' food nuts really hate is that Mackey is rich. They don't like profit."

You Boycott Whole Foods, I'll Boycott the Federal Government Don Boudreaux of the economics blog Cafe Hayek addressed a letter to a Daily Kos user: "You're using your freedom to avoid paying for products offered by someone whose attitude toward government you disapprove of. [...] Will you champion my freedom to stop supporting, with my money, President Barack Obama's services?" He asked whether the Daily Kos user would, specifically, support his decision not to pay taxes to support the president's health care initiative.

Whole Foods Is Synonymous With Corporate Responsibility From his blog The Agitator, Radley Balko called the boycott notion "moronic," pointing to Whole Foods' stellar record in other areas of leftist concern, such as environmental standards and working environment. "Is this really the state of debate on the left now? 'Agree with us, or we'll crush you?'" From the pages of The Atlantic Politics channel, Patrick Appel concurred: "I'm with Radley Balko."

Finally, there were those who remained on the sidelines while firing off insights and snarky potshots. Ezra Klein noted that Mackey's suggestions were hardly new, and offered the following take on the matter:

Mackey, playing to type, has offered a Whole Foods solution for health care: It makes the system even better for the rich and the young and the educated--the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods, in other words--and doesn't do a lot for those who really need help. But the existence of a vibrant institution like Whole Foods within a broader system that considers it unacceptable--at least in theory--for the poor to go hungry, and so subsidizes their purchase of food, does have lessons for heath-care reform.

Joe Weisenthal of the Business Insider stood even farther back from the fray, summing up the affair as "a curious phenomenon." He wrote, "Every once in a while, maybe every six months or so, some event in the media reminds Whole Foods shoppers that the company's (in)famous CEO John Mackey most likely doesn't share their political beliefs. Mackey is an anti-union libertarian."

Then, of course, there was the post on Wonkette today, which attempted a round-up somewhat like this one and wound up with the following startling conclusion: "Do not boycott Whole Foods. Instead, become a stockholder so that you can pressure John Mackey into starting a dog-fighting ring."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/08/whole-foods-and-the-health-care-debate/23407/