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Magda Hassan
05-11-2009, 09:15 AM
Whole Foods Market is a highly profitable corporation that far outperforms its competitors, while maintaining an aura of commitment to social justice and environmental responsibility.
Its clientele is attracted not only to its brightly lit array of pristine fruits and vegetables, organically farmed meats and delectable (yet healthy) recipes, but also to the notion that the mere act of shopping at Whole Foods is helping to change the world.
In 2007, Whole Foods launched its "Whole Trade Guarantee," stating its aim as advancing the fair trade movement -- encouraging higher wages and prices paid to farmers in poor countries while promoting environmentally safe practices.
In addition, Whole Foods announced that 1 percent of proceeds will be turned over to its own Whole Planet Foundation, which supports microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Meanwhile, the company's Animal Compassion Foundation seeks to improve living conditions for farm animals, while stores periodically hold "5 Percent Days," when they donate 5 percent of sales for that day to an area nonprofit or educational organization.
Whole Foods also has a distinctive reputation for rejecting traditional corporate management models in favor of decentralized decision-making, described as an experiment in workplace democracy.
There are no departments at Whole Foods stores, only "teams" of employees. And Whole Foods has no managerial job titles, just team leaders and assistant team leaders. Nor does the company admit to having any workers, only team members who meet regularly to decide everything from local suppliers to who should get hired onto the team.
Generally, the company strives to achieve consensus at team meetings, where workers brainstorm about new ways to raise productivity. And new hires need to win the votes of at least two-thirds of team members to make the cut.
The liberal dress code at Whole Foods allows nose rings, Mohawks, visible tattoos and other expressions of individuality to help promote its stated goal of "team member happiness" for its relatively young workforce. Each team takes regular expeditions, known as "team builds," to local farms or other enterprises to educate themselves on how to better serve their customers.
When team members show extra effort on the job, team leaders award them with "high fives" that can be used to enter an on-site raffle to win a gift card. When a team member gets fired, it is sadly announced as a "separation."
For all its decentralization, the "unique culture" so beholden to Whole Foods' supporters bears the distinct stamp of cofounder and CEO John Mackey, who declared in 1992, a year after Whole Foods went public, "We're creating an organization based on love instead of fear."
The former hippie is known for shunning suits and ties and wearing shorts and hiking boots to meetings -- and for insisting that before the end of every business meeting, everyone says something nice about everyone else in a round of "appreciations." In a 2004 Fast Company article, business writer Charles Fishman favorably quoted a former Whole Foods executive calling Mackey an "anarchist" for his eccentric executive style.

* * *
But something sinister lurks beneath the surface of Whole Foods' progressive image. Somehow, Mackey has managed to achieve multimillionaire status while his employees' hourly wages have remained in the $8 to $13 range for two decades. With an annual turnover rate of 25 percent, the vast majority of workers last no more than four years and thus rarely manage to achieve anything approaching seniority and the higher wages that would accompany it. If Whole Foods' workers are younger than the competitions, that is the intention.
But another secret to Whole Foods' success is its shockingly high prices. When Wal-Mart began promoting its own organic products last year, Whole Foods' Southwest Regional President Michael Besancon scoffed at the notion that Wal-Mart could present serious competition.
"There's no way in the world that we'd win a price battle with Wal-Mart," he told the Rocky Mountain News. "I'm relatively smarter than that." On the contrary, Whole Foods orients to a higher-income clientele willing to pay significantly more for somewhat higher-quality foods. Whereas the average supermarket chain's profits traditionally hover at around 1 percent, Whole Foods was able to sustain a profit margin of 3 percent for 14 years after it went public in 1992.
After hitting a low of 1 percent in the economic downturn in late 2008, "now the margins are expanding again," according to the Cabot report's investment adviser Mike Cintolo on April 26.
Indeed, Mackey is no progressive, but rather a self-described libertarian in the tradition of the Cato Institute. He combines this with a strong dose of paternalism toward the company's employees.
Mackey complained about his unique dilemma at the helm of Whole Foods to fellow executives in an October 2004 speech: "I co-founded the company, so I'm like this father figure at Whole Foods. I'm this rich father figure, and everybody's pulling at me saying, 'Daddy, Daddy, can we have this, can we have that, can we have this, can we have that?' And I'm either like the kind, generous daddy or the mean, scrooge daddy who says 'No.' "
Using a carrot and very large stick, Mackey managed to "convince" Whole Foods workers across the country to vote in 2004 to dramatically downgrade their own health care benefits by switching to a so-called consumer-driven health plan – corporate double-speak for the high-deductible/low-coverage savings account plans preferred by profit-driven enterprises.
Mackey advised other executives in the same 2004 speech, "f you want to set up a consumer-driven health plan, I strongly urge you not to put it as one option in a cafeteria plan, but to make it the only option."
There have been setbacks for Mackey, to be sure. He suffered public humiliation in 2007 when he was exposed as having blogged under the false user name "rahodeb" -- his wife's name spelled in reverse -- between 1999 and 2006 at online financial chat boards hosted by Yahoo. For seven years, he backstabbed his rivals -- including the Wild Oats franchise that Mackey later purchased as an addition to the Whole Foods empire.
[I]The Wall Street Journal reported a typical post: " 'Would Whole Foods buy (Wild Oats)? Almost surely not at current prices,' rahodeb wrote. ‘What would they gain? (Their) locations are too small.' " At one point, rahodeb even admired Mackey's latest haircut, gushing, "I think he looks cute!"
Preventing Whole Foods workers from unionizing has always been at the top of Mackey's agenda, and the company has been successful thus far at crushing every attempt. Perhaps the company's most notorious attack on workers' right to unionize occurred in Madison, Wis., in 2002. Even after a majority of workers voted for the union, Whole Foods spent the next year canceling and stalling negotiation sessions -- knowing that after a year, they could legally engineer a vote to decertify the union. Mission accomplished.
At the mere mention of the word "union," Whole Foods turns ferocious. Even when United Farm Workers activists turned up outside a Whole Foods store in Austin, Texas, where Mackey is based, the company called the police and had them arrested for the "crime" of passing out informational literature on their current grape boycott.
And Mother Jones recently reported, "An internal Whole Foods document listing 'six strategic goals for Whole Foods Market to achieve by 2013 … includes a goal to remain '100 percent union-free.' "
Mackey launched a national anti-union offensive in January in preparation for the (remote) possibility that President Barack Obama, upon his inauguration, would make it a legislative priority to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, allowing workers to win unionization when a majority of a company's workforce signs a union card.
Although union card check is standard procedure in many countries, Mackey claimed to the Washington Post that it "violates a bedrock principle of American democracy" and has vowed to fight to prevent its passage here.
"Armed with those weapons," Mackey argued, "you will see unionization sweep across the United States and set workplaces at war with each other. I do not think it would be a good thing." Workers don't want to join unions anymore, Mackey declared, contradicting every recent opinion poll: "That so few companies are unionized is not for a lack of trying but because [unions] are losing elections -- workers aren't choosing to have labor representation. I don't feel things are worse off for labor today."
Whole Foods' nationwide campaign required workers to attend "union awareness training" complete with Power Point presentations. At the meetings, store leaders asserted, "Unions are deceptive, money-hungry organizations who will say and do almost anything to 'infiltrate' and coerce employees into joining their ranks," according to Whole Foods workers who attended one such meeting.
"According to store leadership," the workers said, "since the mid-1980s, unions have been on decline because according to Whole Foods 'theory,' federal and state legislation enacted to protect workers rights has eliminated the need in most industries (and especially Whole Foods stores) for union organization. … No need to disrupt the great 'culture' that would shrivel up and die if the company become unionized."
When rumors recently began circulating that a union drive might be brewing in San Francisco, the response from the company was immediate -- including mandatory "morale meetings" to dissuade employees.
But company leaders failed to address workers' complaints that they have gone without any pay raises sometimes for more than two years because team leaders have neglected to hold "job dialogue" meetings (known as annual performance reviews in traditional corporate-speak).

* * *
There was a time in decades past when liberalism was defined in part by its principled defense of the right to collective bargaining. That liberal tradition was buried by the market-driven neoliberal agenda over the last three decades, allowing companies like Whole Foods to posture as progressive organizations when their corporate policies are based upon violating one of the most basic of civil rights: the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Indeed, Whole Foods has ridden its progressive image to absorb its smaller competitors and emerge as a corporate giant.
The Texas Observer argued recently, "People shop at Whole Foods not just because it offers organic produce and natural foods, but because it claims to run its business in a way that demonstrates a genuine concern for the community, the environment, and the 'whole planet,' in the words of its motto. In reality, Whole Foods has gone on a corporate feeding frenzy in recent years, swallowing rival retailers across the country. ... The expansion is driven by a simple and lucrative business strategy: high prices and low wages."
Indeed, Whole Foods now stands as the second-largest anti-union retailer in the U.S., behind Wal-Mart. Most of Whole Foods' loyal clientele certainly would -- and should -- shudder at the comparison.

Magda Hassan
05-11-2009, 09:22 AM
Confident that you are buying good, socially conscious brands? Find out the real story behind all that marketing money and store visibility.


My first introduction to natural, organic and eco-friendly products stems back to the early '90s, when I stumbled upon Burt’s Bees lip balm at an independently owned health food store in the heart of Westport, Kansas City, Mo.
Before the eyesore invasion of ’98, when Starbucks frothed its way into the neighborhood, leading to its ultimate demise, Westport was the kind of 'hood I still yearn for. It was saturated with historically preserved, hip and funky, mom-and-pop-type establishments, delivering their goods people to people.
I was surprised more recently when I saw Burt's Bees products everywhere -- in grocery stores, drug stores, corner bodegas and big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. I thought to myself, fantastic; the marketplace is working, and good for Burt. He has made his mark, and the demand for his products is on the rise.
Needless to say, I was shocked when I recently found out that Burt's Bees is now owned by Clorox, a massive corporate company that has historically cared very little about the environment, but whose main industry is directly associated with harmful chemicals, some of which require warning labels for legal sale.
Clorox; yes, that's right -- the bleach company with an estimated revenue of $ 4.8 billion that employs nearly 7,600 workers (now bees) and sells products like Liquid-Plumr, Pine-Sol and Armor All, a far cry from the origins of Burt.
I now understood. The reason Burt's Bees products were everywhere was precisely because they now had a powerful corporation in the driver's seat, with big marketing budgets and existing distribution systems.
The story of Burt is a charming one gone bad. Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper in Dexter, Maine, lived an extremely humble life selling honey in pickle jars from the back of his pickup truck and resided in the wilderness inside a turkey coop without running water or electricity.
In the summer of 1984, Shavitz was driving down the road and spotted a hitchhiker who needed a lift to the post office. He pulled over and picked up Roxanne Quimby, a 34-year-old woman who eventually became Shavitz's lover and business partner. Quimby started helping him tend to the beehives, and that eventually led to the all natural-inspired health care products made with Shavitz's honey and the birth of Burt's Bees products.
Burt's story and very powerful narrative gave Burt's Bees products their legitimacy in my book. Creative entrepreneurs and knowledgeable consumers together working their magic; not the results of a corporate behemoth out to dominate the marketplace.
However, Quimby and Shavitz's relationship became 'sticky' in the late '90s for reasons unclear, yet probably having little to do with honey. Their romantic break up carried over to the split of their business partnership as well. In 1999, Quimby bought out Shavitz's shares of the company for a small six-figure sum. Quimby then continued, becoming phenomenally successfully and growing sales to $43.5 million by 2002.
In 2003, a private equity firm, AEA investors, purchased 80 percent of Burt's Bees from Quimby, with her retaining a 20 percent share and a seat on the board. In 2006, John Replogle, the former general manager of Unilever's skin-care division became CEO and president of Burt's Bees. The company was sold to Clorox in late October 2007 for $925 million.
Quimby was paid more than $300 million for her stake in Burt's Bees. At the time of that deal, Shavitz reportedly demanded more money, and Quimby agreed to pay him $4 million. Quimby now refurbishes fancy, swank homes in Florida, travels the world and buys massive chunks of land in her free time. Our bearded man Shavitz, on the other hand, now 73 and unchanged, continues to reside amidst nature in his now-expanded turkey coop, which still remains absent of electricity or running water.
The Burt's Bees story is disconcerting. I vaguely remembered long ago that one of my favorite ice cream products, Ben & Jerry's, sold out. Unilever (which also owns Breyers), the giant conglomerate with an estimated market cap of $50 billion and close to 174,000 employees, bought Ben & Jerry's in 2000 for $326 million.
I began to wonder about the other products I liked, trusted and respected for their independence and their social responsibility. How many were really owned by big corporations, who were going out of their way to hide the link between the big corporate company with the small, socially responsible brand? It didn't take long for my list of disappointments to grow and grow.
Upon first meeting someone, I can usually tell a quite a lot about them by the contents of their bathroom. The brand I see most often behind medicine cabinets of people I consider to be environmentally conscious is Tom's of Maine. What Tom's says to me about the person is that they are willing to spend a little bit of extra cash in order to take proactive steps to help green the Earth.
Well, no more. My bathroom assessments will never be the same. Tom's of Maine is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, a massive, tanklike company with an estimated 36,000 employees and revenue of approximately $11.4 billion. Its big products include: Ajax, Anbesol and Speedstick.
I am only left to wonder, is Trader Joe's, popularly known to showcase Tom's of Maine in its hygiene department, just as much in the dark about all of this as I have been? Or is Joe's simply another conduit for big corporate products?
As my curiosity grew, I took a little field trip to the grocery store with one of my friends to be a "brand anthropologist." "Let's get to the bottom of this," I said, aiming to check out all of the brands that I and countless other good consumers were buying in our efforts to support grassroots business and not corporate behemoths. Little did I know how deep the hole was going to be, and in some cases, how hard to find out who owns what.
Thinking Dairy
In the dairy section sit many flavors of Stoneyfield Farm Yogurt. I knew its socially conscious CEO, Gary Hirshberg, had created major organic brand recognition to become the No. 1 seller of organic yogurt in the United States, but since then Danone, the French conglomerate (which also owns Brown Cow), acquired a majority holding in Stoneyfield. This is the same Danone that had to recall large quantities of its yogurt in 2007 after it was found to contain unsafe levels of dioxins. (In an interesting twist, the still-active Hirshberg sits on the board of Dannon U.S.A. Unlike most of the early entrepreneurs, who took the dough and left the scene, Hirshberg is still involved. )
Meanwhile, I learned that Horizon Organic milk was bought out by the largest diary company in the U.S., Dean Foods Co., in 2005.
Thirsty? Juices and Water
Next I ventured to the juice section. Drinking Odwalla juices was an expensive habit I had justified for years because of its healthy California brand. The ubiquitous refrigerators in thousands of stores should have given it away that Odwalla wasn't the small company it once was. It is now owned by Coca-Cola. Almost as soon as Coca-Cola bought the company, back in 2001 for $181 million, it stopped selling the fresh-squeezed OJ that had made Odwalla famous and popular among the healthy set. With its massive distribution system, fresh squeezed wouldn't last the days and weeks the juices are in transit or on the shelf.
Not to be outdone (although it took it a while), Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for $450 million, in order to compete with Odwalla. Smuckers, the brand we are told is the "brand we can trust", grabbed several juice mainstays from the health food store shelves: After the fall -- R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.
Turns out that Coca-Cola also owns Glaceau, the company once known for its "fresh new approach to bottled water that is inspired by nature and enhanced by science." Glaceau is the maker of Vitamin Water, Fruit Water, Smart Water and Vitamin Energy -- all bottled waters that are adorably marketed and loaded with sugar. It's no wonder Coca-Cola was slapped with a lawsuit in 2006 for making deceptive and unsubstantiated health claims in its Vitamin Water marketing strategies; they are selling glorified sugar water.
As for bottled water, egads! That's a whole article in and of itself. The scourge of bottled water, of course, is an environmental disaster on many levels, as corporations have moved in to take control of water local supplies, while some of the same companies and their mega advertising budgets have created a giant market for bottled water, with enormous waste from plastic bottles and giant carbon foot prints as water is shipped over many thousands of miles from Fiji for example, or Italy, when pretty much no bottled water is needed. Frequently, tap water is of higher quality and more closely tested than bottled water.
And as Michael Blanding notes on AlterNet, "In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestle, which produces several "local" brands, including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga. Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their sources, while Nestle uses tap water in some brands.
The Breakfast Nook
Over in the breakfast aisle, my friend was a bit apoplectic when we learned that the "super healthy" Kashi cereals, the favorites of millions of healthy breakfast eaters, was bought in July 2000 for an "undisclosed sum" by Kellogg's, the 12th-largest company in North American food sales, according to Food Processing. I picked up a box of Kashi's "Go Lean Crunch" and searched every word; not one mention of the fact that Kellogg's owns them. That change was rally below the radar. In 2004, Kraft Foods, known for processed cheeses and Kool-Aid, bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris USA, one of the world's largest producers of cigarettes.
According to the New York Times, "Many of the alternative cereal brands are owned by larger companies, including Kellogg and General Mills."
"Cereals, like milk, are one of the primary entrance points for use of organics," said Lara Christenson of Spins, a market research group for the natural products industry, "which is pretty closely tied to children -- health concerns, keeping pesticides, especially antibiotics, out of the diets of children. These large firms wanted to get a foothold in the natural and organic marketplace. Because of the mind-set of consumers, branding of these products has to be very different than traditional cereals."
These corporate connections are often kept quiet. "There is frequently a backlash when a big cereal package-goods company buys a natural or organic company," Christenson said. "I don't want to say it's manipulative, but consumers are led to believe these brands are pure, natural or organic brands. It's very purposely done."
A little more digging shows that General Mills owns Cascadian Farm; Barbara's Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company, which is owned by a private investment firm in England; Mother's makes it clear that it is owned by Quaker Oats (which is owned by PepsiCo); Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning 16 percent of that company.
The Sweet Tooth
After the Kashi news, I wondered what was next? I didn't have to go any further than the organic chocolate aisle of my favorite deli to find Green and Black's organic chocolate was taken over in 2005 by Schweppes, the 10th-largest company in North American packaged-food sales. And even more surprising to chocolate lovers is that Dagoba Chocolate, which had a little cult chocolate following for a while, is surprise, surprise, owned by Hershey Foods.
There seems to be an apt analogy between the huge growth in the "naturalization" of packaged goods in grocery stores and supermarket aisles and the massive transformation of organic fresh foods. Organic farming began as a grassroots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies. Furthermore, when the government certifies food as "organic," it has nothing to do with the original values of locally grown produce, workers being treated fairly, etc.
So it may cheer some to know that on the East Coast, McDonald's has served fair-trade-certified Newman's Own organic coffee in stores, while others may cringe at the words of Lee Scott, former CEO of WalMart, when he said, "We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing category in all of food."
"What's important to keep in mind is that these big corporations are getting into organics not because they have doubts about their prior business practices or doubts about chemical, industrial agriculture," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "They're getting in because they want to make a lot of money -- they want to make it fast." He said the companies couldn't care less about "family farmers making the transition to organic farms."
What does this all mean? One conclusion it is easy to come to is that big food companies and the stores and supermarkets that deliver their goods have stretched and abused descriptions of food until they are sometimes almost meaningless, and consumers believe that they are getting more benefits than they actually are. Consumers "walk down the aisle in the grocery stores' health and beauty area, and they're confronted with 'natural' at every turn," says Daniel Fabricant, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association. "We just don't want to see the term misused any longer."
On the other hand, Roger Cowe, a financial commentator states: "If you want to change what people consume on a grand scale, you have to penetrate mass markets. And you can't do that if you're a small, specialist brand stuck in the organic or whole-food niche, even if that means you are on supermarket shelves. It is a familiar dilemma: stay pure and have a big impact on a small scale, or compromise and have a small impact on a grand scale."
Some think that socially responsible business sellers don't lose it all when selling out. Both Craig Sams from Green and Black chocolate and the late Anita Roddick from the Body Shop ( sold to L'Oreal/Nestle -- one of the most vilified of multinational companies) have said that they believe that an acquired ethical company can influence its new parent to improve its corporate behavior.
Others are not so positive about this turn of events. Judy Wickes from the Social Venture Network describes corporate takeovers of socially responsible businesses as "a threat to democracy when wealth and power are concentrated into a few hands." And David Korten, in his book, When Corporations Rule the World, explained how sustainable business "should be human scale -- not necessarily tiny firms, but preferably not more than 500 people -- always with a bias to smaller is better."
It is clear that so-called organic brands are a rapidly growing portion of the consumer dollar, and that every major food corporation has invested deeply in buying these already-established brands.
Marketing strategies have been fooling us to trust that the niche brands continue to be small, environmentally conscious businesses that combine ecologically sound practices with a political agenda to put products out on the market under a business model of "the Greater Good."
In fact, they are frequently cogs in the giant corporate wheel. I like to refer to this "other" business model as "We've Been Had." It is time for we, the consumer, to question how much the ownership and neglectful marketing of these "pseudo" responsible brands warrant crossing them off our shopping list.
And it is time to find products more in tune with our values, which include thinking small. At least until they, too, get bought out by some large conglomerate.

Magda Hassan
05-13-2009, 03:51 AM
E. Coli and capitalism (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/e-coli-and-capitalism/)

Filed under: Ecology (http://en.wordpress.com/tag/ecology/), farming (http://en.wordpress.com/tag/farming/) — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/82/E_coli_at_10000x.jpg/800px-E_coli_at_10000x.jpg (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/82/E_coli_at_10000x.jpg/800px-E_coli_at_10000x.jpg)

E. Coli

About 3 years ago I began buying meat or fish from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods in New York. The first is an Internet-based retailer. You order online and deliveries are made to your apartment from warehouses in the outer boroughs. The advantage supposedly to Fresh Direct was that the food was under tighter control than in supermarkets where meat and fish are sold long after their expiration date. Their website brags:

Our food comes directly from farms, dairies and fisheries (not middlemen), so it’s several days fresher and a lot less expensive when it gets to your table. Our fully refrigerated, state-of-the-art facility (minutes from Manhattan in Long Island City) lets us meet standards no retail store in the country can match. We follow USDA guidelines and the HACCP food safety system in all our fresh storage and production rooms. Since customers don’t shop in our facility, we can maintain different environments for each type of food we sell. For example, we have seven different climates for handling produce, ensuring that the bananas are as happy as the potatoes.

As much as I enjoyed the convenience of ordering from Fresh Direct, I cut them out last October when I discovered that the initial capital investment came from Peter Ackerman (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/10/03/peter-ackerman-billionaire-sponsor-of-toxic-ngos/), a George Soros type investor who funds NGO’s around the world dedicated to overthrowing the latest designated enemy of the U.S. State Department–including the Albert Einstein Institute that Stephen Zunes is haplessly trying to defend (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/cmg050808.html) against the charge of meddling in Venezuela’s internal politics.

Whole Foods, on the other hand, is a nationwide chain that first established a foothold in New York a few years ago. Whatever I wasn’t buying from Fresh Direct, I’d pick up at Whole Foods. As its name implies, it puts a heavy emphasis on organic meat and produce. Their website, competing with Fresh Direct as to who is best positioned to Save the Planet, informs us:

This is where it all began. Whole Foods Market is all about organics, and organics is all about respect for the earth and the natural processes that have nourished us for millennia. Organic agriculture works in harmony with Nature to produce food that is free of man-made toxins, promoting the health of consumers, farmers and the earth, with an eye to maintaining that health far into the future.

Organic farming is a hopeful enterprise, practiced with compassion and empathy for the land and the creatures upon it.

Somehow, the “health of consumers” went by the wayside this week when Whole Food was implicated in a major E. Coli outbreak, as today’s Washington Post reports:

Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.

The meat Whole Foods recalled came from Coleman Natural Foods, which unbeknownst to Whole Foods had processed it at Nebraska Beef, an Omaha meatpacker with a history of food-safety and other violations. Nebraska Beef last month recalled more than 5 million pounds of beef produced in May and June after its meat was blamed for another E. coli outbreak in seven states. On Friday it recalled an additional 1.2 million pounds of beef produced on June 17, June 24 and July 8, which included products eventually sold to Whole Foods. The recall is not related to the recent spate of E. coli illnesses among Boy Scouts at a gathering in Goshen, Va.

Whole Foods officials are investigating why they were not aware that Coleman was using Nebraska Beef as a processor, spokeswoman Libba Letton said.

Also of some interest in light of the Democratic Party’s “change” mantra is the role of a Democratic Governor in doing favors for Nebraska Beef:

The force behind Nebraska Beef is Nebraska businessman William Hughes. Hughes was a top executive at the now-defunct BeefAmerica. In 1997, the USDA yanked its inspectors from BeefAmerica’s Norfolk, Neb., plant because of repeated sanitation violations, including contamination of meat with fecal matter. The company had to recall more than 600,000 pounds of beef after the USDA traced E. coli O157:H7-tainted meat from a Virginia retailer to the Omaha packer. It filed for bankruptcy the following year.

By then, Hughes was already part of a group of Nebraska Beef investors. The state gave the company additional financial support in the form of $7.5 million in tax credits under its Quality Jobs Act. Then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D), now a U.S. senator, sat on the three-member jobs board that approved the tax credits. Nelson’s former law firm, Lamson, Dugan and Murray, represents Nebraska Beef.

While state leaders welcomed Nebraska Beef and the jobs that came with it, residents who lived near the plant did not, and for more than a decade, they battled the company over manure strewn in the street and workers walking off the kill floor and into the local grocery store covered in cow splatter, said South Omaha resident Janet Bonet.

Labor unions have also criticized Nebraska Beef over its labor practices. Since 1998, the company has had 47 workplace safety violations and paid more than $100,000 in fines, Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show. Lamson said most were not serious.


I have never bought beef at Whole Food, but now wonder about the chicken and fish that I have. For that matter, the food could be just as unsavory as John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, another businessman with political ambitions as grandiose as Peter Ackerman’s. Starting off as a leftist undergraduate at the U. of Texas, Mackey evolved into a libertarian as soon as he started a food business as he explained in a salon.com interview (http://www.endervidualism.com/salon/intvw/mackey.htm):
When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…
I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.
A couple of years ago Mackey made the news for using a pseudonym on the Yahoo stock market forum in an attempt to drive down the price of a company he sought to take over, as Smartmoney.com reports (http://www.smartmoney.com/breaking-news/smw/index.cfm?story=20070712105705):
In January 2005, someone using the name “Rahodeb” went online to a Yahoo stock-market forum and posted this opinion: No company would want to buy Wild Oats Markets Inc., a natural-foods grocer, at its price then of about $8 a share.
“Would Whole Foods buy OATS?” Rahodeb asked, using Wild Oats’ stock symbol. “Almost surely not at current prices. What would they gain? OATS locations are too small.” Rahodeb speculated that Wild Oats eventually would be sold after sliding into bankruptcy or when its stock fell below $5. A month later, Rahodeb wrote that Wild Oats management “clearly doesn’t know what it is doing. . . . OATS has no value and no future.”
The comments were typical of banter on Internet message boards for stocks, but the writer’s identity was anything but. Rahodeb was an online pseudonym of John Mackey, co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods Market Inc. Earlier this year, his company agreed to buy Wild Oats for $565 million, or $18.50 a share.

Obviously, despite the lip-service paid to transparency in the marketplace, Mackey is not above tipping the scale in his favor.

This is not the first time that an “organic” food producer has been implicated in an E. Coli outbreak. Only 2 years ago, Earthbound Farms spinach was contaminated with the deadly bacteria. Earthbound Farms, like Coleman, Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, is another “green” producer whose website states:

More than 24 years ago, Earthbound Farm started in a backyard garden, where we grew food we felt good about serving to our friends and family. And that meant farming organically.

Today, our commitment to the health of those who enjoy our harvest is stronger than ever. Earthbound Farm certified organic produce is grown by about 150 dedicated farmers, who use the same organic farming methods on the smallest farm (about 5 acres) as on the largest (about 680 acres). Together, we’re working to bring healthy and delicious organic food to people wherever they live and shop, and to protect the environment.

Since E. Coli is associated with animal waste, it seemed odd at first that spinach could become tainted. It turned out that animal waste was involved, as radical food journalist Michael Pollan explained in an October 15, 2006 N.Y. Times piece titled “The Vegetable-Industrial Complex (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/15/magazine/15wwln_lede.html)“:

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution – the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops – and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem – chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

But if industrial farming gave us this bug, it is industrial eating that has spread it far and wide. We don’t yet know exactly what happened in the case of the spinach washed and packed by Natural Selection Foods, whether it was contaminated in the field or in the processing plant or if perhaps the sealed bags made a trivial contamination worse. But we do know that a great deal of spinach from a great many fields gets mixed together in the water at that plant, giving microbes from a single field an opportunity to contaminate a vast amount of food. The plant in question washes 26 million servings of salad every week. In effect, we’re washing the whole nation’s salad in one big sink.

My father, who died in 1970, was the owner of a fruit and vegetable store in the Catskill Mountains. He also sold fish in the wintertime. After an A&P moved into town in the mid 1960s, his business started to go downhill–a trend that had begun with the decline of the tourist industry a few years earlier.

To this day, I have never tasted fruit and vegetables like those that he sold. Compared to the garbage you buy in supermarkets today, they were like a Platonic ideal. Biting into a tomato in the mid 1950s was like partaking in the Eternal Essence of Tomato. The same thing was true of the fish that he sold which came from fresh water lakes and the ocean, never from fish farms. Some fish that he sold–like Pike or Yellow Perch–are simply unavailable today, even in boutique stores in the richest neighborhoods.

Nearly everything he sold was seasonal and native to a particular section of the U.S. This was long before the days when grapes came from Chile and tomatoes from Mexico. You bought grapes in the summertime because that is when they were available. In December you ate apples from the Pacific Northwest and oranges from Florida and that was that. Whatever you sacrificed in terms of choice was more than adequately compensated by taste. Since much of the fruit and produce was still being produced by relatively small farms, there was less susceptibility to the kinds of bacterial infection described by Michael Pollan.

There has been a tendency among some on the left to think uncritically about the “benefits” of industrial farming, as if input-output ratios based on minimal expenditures is the sole criterion. In many ways, the crisis of agriculture today is no different than it was in Marx’s day. By substituting industrial farming techniques for the “backward” methods of the past, the door is open to the kind of problems Marx described in V.3 of Capital:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.

Marx and Engels’s solution in the Communist Manifesto appears as timely as ever, even if through its implementation we will once again suffer the hardship of only being able to eat grapes in the summertime:

Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.


http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/e-coli-and-capitalism/