Is Whole Foods Channeling Tony Soprano?

Published October 14, 2016

In various episodes of “The Sopranos,” the head of the mob family, Tony Soprano, and his capos met for brainstorming sessions to air ideas for new scams and heists. The more inventive rackets included stealing the valet-parked cars from an upscale New Jersey Bar Mitzvah and defrauding the U.S. Department of Housing of Urban Development by leaving the feds holding the bag on guaranteed loans intended for housing redevelopment in Newark.

Like criminals who constantly expand their repertoire, Whole Foods’ violations of state and federal law have been escalating. They’ve gone from defrauding their customers in various ways to adopting food preparation practices that actually endanger them.

Known sardonically as “Whole Paycheck” for their outrageous prices, Whole Foods has been found guilty repeatedly of widespread cheating. New York City Department of Consumer Affairs investigators found last year that the company systematically ripped off unwitting customers by “routinely” overstating the weight of pre-packaged foods–including meats, seafood, dairy and baked goods. The co-CEO called these thefts “mistakes.”

That travesty followed the $800,000 settlement the previous year with the City Attorneys of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Diego after Whole Foods stores were found to be overcharging by not accounting for the weight of containers at their already over-priced salad bars.

Whole Foods bills itself as “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store,” even trademarking the term.

Yet in a devastating June 8 warning letter–one of the most severe compliance actions that the FDA has at its disposal–the FDA said Whole Foods was manufacturing, packaging and storing food in ways that promoted contamination with microorganisms that cause food poisoning.

Among the long list of serious problems identified during multiple inspections in February at a 70,000-square foot facility that supplies prepared foods and other products to 74 stores across eight states were foods like pasta and mushroom quesadillas prepared or stored in places where condensation was dripping from ceilings, a doorway and a fan.

In addition, the company kept dirty dishes near food, did not supply hot water at some hand-washing sinks and allowed high-pressure hoses used for cleaning to spray food-preparation areas.

Last year, Whole Foods had to recall batches of its curry chicken salad and a pasta salad from East Coast stores after the products were found during a routine inspection of the same plant to be contaminated with a nasty bacterium called Listeria. And just this month, organic “micro greens” were recalled from Whole Foods because of Salmonella contamination that was discovered not by the grower or Whole Foods but during a random check by FDA.

The fact that so many problems failed to be detected by Whole Foods’ quality-control systems strongly suggests that there are far more safety problems that we don’t know about.

There are other ways that Whole Foods fails to live up to its claims about being the “healthiest.” The company’s disingenuousness in providing information to its customers is as bad as its deficient food preparation and storage. Its website promotes the practice of homeopathy–including for treating illnesses in babies, some of which, including the flu, can be serious–in spite of the fact that it is pseudoscientific rubbish in the same mold as perpetual-motion machines. (And it ignores both that homeopathic products may actually be harmful and that for many illnesses there are “real” drugs that actually work.)

Central to the company’s grossly inflated pricing and popularity are misleading representations about its organic food offerings.

We love the example of holier-than-thou Whole Foods importing large amounts of its supposedly “organic” produce from China, of all places. Those imports even included Whole Foods’ house brand, “California Blend.” (Yes, you read that correctly.) The company insists that “organic” certification of Chinese imports is valid and just as strict and reliable as in the United States. (If you believe that, we can offer you a terrific price on the Golden Gate Bridge–which, by the way, really is in California.)

Aside from splitting hairs about whether “California Blend” from China, one of the most polluted countries on the planet, meets “organic” standards, Whole Foods seems to be channeling scam-artists like Dr. Mehmet Oz when it comes to claims about organic foods in general. On its webpage, Whole Foods perpetuates the myth that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. It asks rhetorically, “[I]s organic food more nutritious? This question has been the source of a lot of discussion in the past few years…and we’re feeling pretty optimistic about some of the new research.”

The company must have a low threshold for optimism, because it cites shoddy, cherry-picked research from biased sources.

For instance, it singles out “leading research” by the Organic Center, an outfit directed by organic food and supplement makers including Mike Ferry, the president of Horizon Organic, and Meg Hirshberg, the wife of organic activist, Stonyfield co-founder and chairman Gary Hirshberg.

Whole Foods then directs consumers only to the Organic Trade Association, the Rodale Institute (whose motto is, “organic pioneers since 1947”), and “research” from a Washington State University webpage.  But the WSU link isn’t even research; it’s an essay that argues that the United States Department of Agriculture should “prohibit the use of manure from non-organic farms,” in order to allow organic food marketers “to support their claims of addressing climate change.”

The WSU harangue has nothing to do with Whole Foods’ claim that organic food is more nutritious. And not surprisingly, Whole Foods fails to acknowledge persuasive evidence that debunks the organic-is-healthier hoax. For example, a widely-publicized, peer-reviewed analysis published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts.

Given the huge price premium for organic foods (and other organic products, including linens and clothing), one might well ask, “Why organic?” Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture when rules for organic certification were formulated, provided the answer:

Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety.  Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.

That is worth repeating: The USDA “organic” designation has nothing to do with food safety, nutrition or quality.

Whole Foods may have enjoyed financial success (at least until the beginning of last year, when its stock price began an inexorable decline), but let’s not confuse doing well with doing good. Wells Fargo and the tobacco companies are cases in point.

Consumers deserve honesty, respect and integrity, which they’re not getting from Whole Foods.

And their customers are beginning to realize it: Same-store sales, an indicator of how well stores open at least a year are doing, have fallen for the past four quarters. Maybe their customers should try Sopranos’ Markets.  (Their motto: “You’ll love what we sell you. Or else.”)Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

[Originally Published at Forbes]