Whole Foods: Changing the Way We Think About Food


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The United States is currently facing one of the worst health crises the country has ever seen. Between 1996 and 2005 the number of Americans suffering from three or more chronic diseases increased by eighty-six percent, and the incidence of diabetes in the American population increased by ninety percent (Gene & Popper, 24). The source of this drastic increase in chronic illnesses can be directly tied to the lack of proper nutrition and the presence of dangerous chemicals found in the average American diet.  With two-thirds of the American adult population qualifying as either overweight or obese it is clear that the lack of government regulation in the food production industry has caused a nationwide epidemic (Gene & Popper, 24).

With drastic government reform of the food production industry unlikely to occur in the immediate future, there has become a societal need for alternative, healthy food options.  Current cultural trends show that American preferences are moving away from processed food and toward more healthy, sustainable food options.  This need has resulted in the creation of alternative grocery stores and restaurants with sustainable, nutritional focuses.  The most prominent example of one of these companies is Whole Foods Market.  Whole Foods Market was founded in 1980 by two individuals with the goal of transforming the way Americans eat and shop for groceries.  The aim of the founders was to create a shopping experience that encouraged nutritional education through the implementation of healthy eating habits and access to the highest quality foods available.  The company was formed in response to the processed food movement, as an alternative for individuals looking for healthy options (Whole Foods Website, 2013).  From a utilitarian viewpoint Whole Foods is an ethical company because every aspect of their business model from their food standards, to their educational programs, to their environmental policies result in positive benefits for all stakeholders that outweigh any societal costs.

Utilitarianism ethicists believe that it is the result of a particular business decision, not the decision itself that causes a particular situation to be ethical.  If the benefits of a certain decision outcome outweigh the costs of that same decision outcome then the consequences of that decision are ethical; if they do not, it is not ethical (Trevino, Nelson, 90).  The social costs incurred by society through the consumption of unhealthy, over processed foods found at standard grocery stores or in fast food restaurants have resulted in societal costs of roughly $40 to $100 billion dollars a year (Wolf, Colditz, 2013).  Not only is this practice unsustainable, but it is also unethical because the costs of these decisions to create unhealthy food options outweigh any potential benefits.  In this situation there is only one party that benefits from the consumption of processed food and that is the food corporations themselves.  Therefore from a purely sociological perspective the decision of using dangerous food producing practices is unethical and should be addressed immediately.

Whole Foods has been able to solve this ethical conundrum by implementing high product standards and offering a wide range of educational programming to customers, employees, and other potential stakeholders. Whole Foods has taken it upon themselves to eliminate dangerous and unnatural food additives from the products that they sell even though they are not required to by law. The list of prohibited food additives consists of roughly eighty different chemicals including BHA and BHT, two very commonly used preservatives made from petroleum, the same chemical used to make the gasoline that runs your car (Goyanes, 2013).  A full list of all prohibited food additives can be found at the end of this report (directly from the Whole Foods Website).  This is one example of how Whole Foods executives have created a company that is ethically responsible.  By eradicating all unnatural food additives in their products, Whole Foods has effectively eliminated any health costs associated with consuming food additives. While these foods options may cost a little more to purchase, the overall health benefits to the customer vastly outweighs any potential cost, which makes this policy ethical and beneficial to society as a whole (Heineman, Froemke, 2013).

Whole foods also has strict regulations for the production of its agricultural products.  Whole Foods prides itself on only selling the best organically grown produce available.  To be considered organic, the crop must be grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or ionizing radiation, all of which have been linked to health problems (Organic.org, 2013).  Whole Foods also tries to buy produce from local farmers in the community whenever possible.  These actions result in positive consequences for all involved (Whole Foods Website).  The customer is happy because they know that they are getting a quality product, and local farmers are happy because they are able to stay in business. The growth of the big agriculture industry has created an environment where it is difficult for small, family owned farms to compete.  Yes, it is valid that organic produce is more expensive than standard produce; however, the positive health benefits outweigh any of these costs, making this an ethical policy.

Whole Foods also employs strict standards for any meat or animal products sold in their stores.  One of the major problems the has surfaced since the industrialization of the food industry is the inhumane treatment and genetic modifications of farm animals.  Today, in an effort to make larger profits, meat producing corporations like Purdue and Tyson are creating genetically modified animals that live inhumane lifestyles (Kenner, 2013).  Take a look at the difference between a normal chicken and a genetically modified chicken shown in the photo below.             12785_368494776592533_415201850_n

As you can see the genetically modified bird is so large that it cannot stand upright on its own.  In an effort to create a chicken that provides larger portions of meat, genetic scientists have modified the chicken’s genes to create a super bird that cannot support its own bulk.  (Kenner, 2013).  This form of chicken farming is not only cruel because it significantly diminishing the bird’s way of life, but also unnatural.  Like GMOs in agriculture the human body is not meant to ingest scientifically created organisms.  Also it should be noted that some farms use hormones to achieve the same effect.  These hormones should be avoided at all costs as they have documented negative effects on humans that ingest them.  Based on the utilitarian theory of ethics it is unethical for a company to genetically modify and inhumanly house farm animals.  In doing this major costs are incurred for both the animals and the individuals that are consuming their products.  There does not appear to be any societal benefits from the use of these genetically modified animal products.

In an effort to eliminate animal cruelty from our food chain, Whole Foods has partnered with the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals, to establish their own meat standards.  All meat sold in Whole Foods stores must pass GAP’s strict six-step test.  This test requires that any animals used in the production of animal products are not to be confined to a crate or a cage, but instead allowed to roam free, outdoors, on dedicated pastureland.  They also encourage farmers to provide animals with an environment that encourages normal animal behavior, such as providing chickens with straw to peck at.  All physical alterations of these animals are strictly prohibited, and finally the animal must spend its entire life at the same farm (Whole Foods Website).  Farming practices such as these are ethical because they provide the most benefits to all the organisms involved.  The animals benefit because they have a higher quality of life, and we benefit because we are getting better quality meats.  Overall, while raising animals under these conditions may be more expensive for producers and consumers, these costs are offset by the massive health benefits provided for both the animals and consumers.

Whole Foods has also become the leader in providing sustainable seafood options.  With events such as the BP oil spill, Americans are becoming increasingly concerned with where their fish are coming from.  Also many of the country’s most popular fish species have become overfished, which has negative consequences for both the fish population and their natural habitat. In an effort to provide sustainable seafood options for its customers, Whole Foods became the first retailer to team up with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a non-profit organization dedicated to the implementation of sustainable fishing practices.  Whenever possible Whole Foods tries to sell MSC certified fish that come from MSC certified fisheries.  However, there are certain fish that cannot be farmed and when this is the case the company uses a sustainability rating program to separate fish into three categories–red, yellow and green–to guide customers.  The green rated fish are the best in terms of sustainability and quality.  Yellow fish species are a step below green rated species, and red labeled species are the least sustainable species (Whole Foods Website).

In an effort to further their sustainability goals, Whole Foods announced last year that it will no longer be carrying red rated fish. While this was a difficult decision for the company to make–as it did have the potential to cut profits and cause customers to look elsewhere for these fish–they decided to go ahead with the policy as a way to maintain their reputation by making the most ethical decision possible.  This example particularly exemplifies Whole Foods’ commitment to socially responsible decision making (Whole Foods Website).  In the food production industry it is rare to see a company pass up an opportunity to make more money, even if the decision does create negative consequences for other stakeholders.  Whole Foods, however, decided to forgo this opportunity in the interest of doing what was right.  The video below is from the Whole Foods website and explains in detail the reasoning behind their decision to eliminate red rated fish from their stores.

Whole Foods takes pride in everything they sell.  The use of humane and sustainable business practices is what sets them apart from other grocers.  Every single one of their business policies was created with stakeholder well being in mind.  This is a drastic departure from the traditional attitude commonly found in the food industry. It is this concern for  stakeholders rights, as opposed to making the most revenue, that guides their decision making processes and results in the many societal benefits that their business practices provide.  These benefits include a cleaner environment, humane treatment of all living beings, and overall stakeholder health.  All of their actions as a business can be considered ethical based on the utilitarian view of ethics.  The reason for this is because of the consistently positive net benefits that arise as consequences of their business decisions.  Every decision Whole Foods makes must benefit their customers without causing harm to any additional external stakeholders.  The Whole Foods sustainable business model is revolutionary and signifies a revolutionary shift in the way we look at food.

Cited Sources:

  1. “Organic.org – Organic FAQ.” Organic.org – Organic FAQ. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
  2. Wolf, Anne M., and Graham A. Colditz. “Current Estimates of the Economic Cost of Obesity in the United States.” Obesity 6.2 (2012): n. pag. Print.
  3. “Whole Foods Market.”  Wholefoods.com – Home Page.  N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
  4. “Fortune 500 2009: Top Performers.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2013.
  5. “13 Banned Foods Still Allowed in the U.S.” Shape Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2013.
  6. Stone, Gene, and Pamela Popper. Forks over Knives: The Plant-based Way to Health. New York: Experiment, 2011. Print.
  7. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
  8. Food, INC. Dir. Robert Kenner. Perf. Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Magnolia Pictures, 2009. DVD.
  9. Escape Fire. Dir. Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke. Lionsgate, 2012.
  10. Treviño, Linda Klebe., and Katherine A. Nelson. Managing Business Ethics. New York: Wiley, 2006. Print.
  11. Photo: “Welcome to Raw for Beauty.” Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. http://www.rawforbeauty.com/blog.html
  12. Youtube Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=JEyy4fbOEz4

Photos:

http://upsidebusiness.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/fd_wholefoods_2.jpg

http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2013/01/15/ap070824016201-1–c476bfe9dd721e6a1c72b80b01f224704baf0b0e-s6-c10.jpg

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