Shocking stories from Whole Foods include more than just the price of the items they sell. The health food grocery giant is a major player in the industry, appearing in numerous locations across the United States as well as the occasional “things white people like” meme. Whole Foods is a favorite food shopping place for many and was a big catalyst in making organic, health-focused food a new way of life for plenty of consumers. Even Walmart has taken a cue from their model.
But Whole Foods behind the scenes is a bit different from the fresh cut flowers and colorful salad bar that greet customers inside. Led by CEO John Mackey, the company has a reputation for using questionable methods to get ahead and stay ahead in business. Stories from Whole Foods employees make the company’s views on labor seem a little unsettling as well.
Grocery stores have changed a lot through the years, and the health food retail industry has become a lot more saturated. While Whole Foods does deserve credit for boosting the trend, these dark Whole Foods tales might make you think twice about where you purchase your kale.
CEO John Mackey Used An Alias To Discredit Competitors Online
While Whole Foods was trying to buy out one of its closest competitors, Wild Oats, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had some odd ideas about encouraging the sale. For several years after his offer was rejected, Mackey used a Yahoo Finance message board to praise his company but mock Wild Oats in order to keep their market share from going up. Being a responsible CEO of a major grocery chain, he used the screen name Rahodeb to do so.
Although forum participants tried to call him on his true identity, he refused to give himself up, even telling other users he was actually George W. Bush. He wasn’t shy about posting flattering comments about himself, either – for instance, “I think he looks cute!” The truth finally came out in a 2007 Federal Trade Commission report trying to block the merger, but Mackey was not at all ashamed of his actions.
A Customer Once Poisoned The Salad Bar At A Michigan Store
Most customers who shop at Whole Foods are loyal to the chain for their selection of organic produce, grown without pesticides. But in 2016, one customer decided he’d rather have chemicals along with his kale. The FBI got involved with the case after customers reported a man pouring hazardous liquid on salad and hot food bar items at several Ann Arbor grocery stores, including a Whole Foods. His hazardous concoction contained a mixture of mice poison and hand sanitizer. The man was arrested, but no motive was found.
Their Produce Doesn’t Really Come From Small Farms
Whole Foods’ in-store marketing campaigns often feature photographs of real-life farmers and signs encouraging shoppers to support their small farms. Unfortunately, the onions and spinach you’re buying may not actually be from there. The majority of produce Whole Foods carries comes from corporate farms, and much of their private label frozen vegetables and fruits comes from China, where the “organic” stamp isn’t regulated. One small farmer commented, “Almost all the organic food in this country comes out of California. And five or six big California farms dominate the whole industry.”
Using the profiles and images of small farmers is one way Whole Foods appeals to its customers. Like shopping at a farmer’s market, if a shopper can relate what they’re buying with the face of the person who actually grew it, they feel good about purchase. But one journalist found the produce didn’t match what they were selling, and one farmer even claimed Whole Foods never sold his products, but said they had.
They’ve Been Sued Several Times For Overcharging Customers
There’s a reason why people call it “Whole Paycheck.” In 2014, several stores in southern California were sued for their prices. Whole Foods settled the case after being charged with pricing violations which included selling prepared deli foods by the piece instead of by weight, mislabeling pre-packed foods with a weight and price higher than the actual cost of the contents, and charging customers for the weight of the to-go containers used in the hot food and salad bars.
In 2015, Whole Foods in New York state underwent the same investigation and were again found guilty of overcharging customers.
Although the image Whole Foods projects is almost a polar opposite of Walmart, in some ways they aren’t that much different. CEO John Mackey is against employee unions, believing his company provides such a satisfying work environment, they are unnecessary. He is even quoted as saying, “The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.”
When employees are hired, they are given a pamphlet entitled “Beyond Unions,” and the chain has kept employees forming unions in all but one of its stores. Some Whole Foods critics have pointed out that the chain outwardly appears to be very concerned about its own employees, but not so much the workers who grow, harvest, and deliver the items they sell.
They Sold Products Made By Exploited Prisoners
Until 2016, Whole Foods customers may have purchased certain items distributed by companies who used prisoners in their workforces. That may seem strange, but companies sometimes utilize prisoners for labor because they can pay them a lower wage. At one time, Whole Foods sold tilapia grown by a company who used Colorado Correctional Industries as a source of labor, paying their workers $1.50 per hour. Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy provided cheese products for Whole Foods, and was found to pay their prison workers 60 cents per hour.
Even though CEO John Mackey is a supporter of “conscious capitalism,” the belief that business can make money and do good at the same time, Whole Foods sold these cheaply produced items at a large markup. After a lot of concern from customers, the company decided to stop selling these products.
They Ruthlessly Took Out Small Business Competition
Part of Whole Foods’ success is due to its business tactics. Instead of focusing on providing their customers with lower prices and better products, the company decided to just buy out its competition. Fresh Fields, Food For Thought, and Wild Oats were among some of the competitors that Whole Foods found a significant threat. Although the Federal Trade Commission tried to stop them from taking over Wild Oats and a federal appeals court eventually realized there were antitrust problems with the deal, Whole Foods had already sold off or closed most of the Wild Oats locations.
Due to its size, Whole Foods was also able to bully smaller competitors and steal some of their customers. But now that more consumers are interested in organic and health food, Whole Foods has significantly more competition and sales are being affected. In an effort to keep their standing in the health food world, Whole Foods has had to take some new steps, including opening a chain of lower priced stores called 365 by Whole Foods Market and selling the entire company to Amazon.
Those Store Baked Treats Aren’t Actually Store Baked
Shoppers in New Jersey sued their local Whole Foods in 2015 for advertising their baked goods as something they were not. According to the customers’ claims, the store fraudulently used terms like “made in house” and “store baked.” Bakery items that are not packaged by an outside company, and thus labeled as Whole Foods products, are not technically baked in house. Items like muffins, cookies, and bagels were actually baked off-premise, frozen, delivered to the store, re-baked, and then sold.
One former Whole Foods employee noted, “None of the cakes where I used to work were baked in house at all. Decorated sure, but not baked there. The only items baked in house were the hearth breads. The cookies were baked, but not made in house. The dough came already made in a five-gallon pail. They have no issue slapping on the ‘baked fresh here’ label.”
Whole Foods Deli Offerings May Not Be What You Think
In addition to at least one Whole Foods store being cited for health violations, not all the deli selection may be as labeled. One former employee commented, “The deli you fare a bit better, but there is still a good chunk of made off site product called Chef Made. Lasagnas, spanakopita, veggie burgers, fritters, cakes, salads, and sauces. Mind you, you are paying anywhere between 8-10 bucks per pound or 4-6 bucks per each for these Chef Made items. The labeling is dishonest for sure. FYI, not one actual chef worked in the WF kitchen I came from, so there’s that dishonesty as well.”
Another disgruntled employee had a similar experience, saying,” Almost all of the prepared foods come from Sysco, not the sales floor. The only time you’ll be eating anything even remotely similar to organic romaine in your $9 caesar salad is if they had bunch of it spoil in the produce department.”
Employees May Not Really Be Knowledgeable About The Products
Employees of Whole Foods watch corporate training videos that teach them about the company and its values, as well as general knowledge about the products the chain carries. But these employees may not always be as informed as they seem. One former Whole Foods employee commented, “Part of the problem with Whole Foods is they tend to hire enthusiastic, naive people who are more willing to tell customers what they want to hear than the truth. Training at all levels is abysmal, and the focus on indoctrination into the Whole Foods family, such as it is, over accuracy and service is killing the brand.”
A group calling themselves Organic Spies also discovered through talking with former employees that they were lied to about the presence of GMOs in Whole Foods’ products. They claim employees in training were falsely told no GMO products were carried by the chain, information they then passed on to customers.