Whole Foods has gained a reputation as a place consumers can count on for quality as well as variety. Along with that, it’s become a stellar showcase for more and more organic products often not easily found elsewhere. But, like so much these days, that is changing and not for the better.
Whole Foods faces stiff competition from the likes of Costco, Walmart and Kroger, all of whom are now carrying various amounts of organic and natural foods, cutting big time into W.F.’s market share. Now organic farmers are alleging that Whole Foods is using its marketing skills behind the scenes, and its credibility with many consumers, to send the message that conventionally grown produce is just as good as — or better than — organically grown products also featured in stores. Shoppers are being given the option of choosing fruits and vegetables that are labeled “good,” “better” or “best.”
The program, called Responsibly Grown, can give a farmer who does not meet stringent requirements for federal organic certification the same rating as true organic farmers.
“Whole Foods has done so much to help educate consumers about the advantages of eating an organic diet,” five farmers wrote in a letter sent on Thursday to Whole Foods’ co-founder and co-chief executive John Mackey. “This new rating program undermines, to a great degree, that effort.”
According to Kelly Bania, an investment analyst at BMO Capital Markets, Costco has become the biggest purveyor of organic foods, selling some $4 billion worth in the last year, compared with an estimated $3.6 billion in organic sales at Whole Foods.
Walmart, which already had a robust organic business, announced last yearthat it was expanding the category, and General Mills and Campbell Soup have both announced intentions to expand the organic pieces of their businesses substantially.
Even Target recently announced plans to diver further into the organic food offerings.
Sales of organic food have skyrocketed in recent years as more Americans seek out better food choices amid rising health concerns about obesity-causing processed foods.
“Becoming organic is a big investment of time and money,” said Jeff Larkey of Route 1 Farms, who grows a number of organic crops near Santa Cruz, California.”This ratings system kind of devalues all that — if you can get a ‘best’ rating as a conventional farmer using pesticides and other toxic substances, why would you grow organically?”
Will Whole Foods new rating system backfire? Possibly. As consumer awareness continues to grow about the presence of GMO’s and pesticides in our food, will consumers – and farmers – speak up loudly against the grocery retailer? That could well affect the comfort zone that it’s so long enjoyed as a grocery leader. It could be a double whammy of loss of consumer confidence and big losses in stock value. Whole Foods’ “good idea” could end up being the loose brick that takes down the house.Time – and social media – will tell.