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Michael Pollan vs. Whole Foods?

It was a busy spring for journalist Michael Pollan and the summer is proving to be even more so. Since the publication of his controversial book on the state of American agriculture and food systems, "The Ominivore's Dilemma,", Pollan has been interviewed in countless publications, (including The Washington Post Food section and in a live chat on washingtonpost.com.

In May, Pollan began writing dispatches in blog format as a guest columnist for the New York Times Select Web site. His first post, dated May 7, challenged the business practices of Whole Foods Market, the subject of an entire chapter in his book.

In a bold move, the corporate world bit back, but this time in the form of an "open letter" available for public consumption. In his blog on the Whole Foods Web site, CEO John Mackey responds to Pollan's challenges on May 25, asserting that Pollan paints an inaccurate picture.

Two weeks later, on June 12, Pollan lobbies Mackey's volleyon his Web site, continuing a conversation that feels historic. When was the last time you remember a corporate honcho publicly taking heat and then willing to advance the conversation in public? The letters are long and perhaps this is all a great marketing vehicle, but who cares if it keeps corporate America on its toes?

True to form, Mackey has replied in great detail this week, dissecting Pollan's response paragraph by paragraph. I await the next chapter of what feels like an unprecedented and important debate on the industrialization of the food we eat.

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Are you eating your vegetables? Step to it! With the constant flow from local farms, this is the time of year to get your fill. Need help getting started? Join me at 1 p.m. ET for my monthly What's Cooking Vegetarian chat.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 29, 2006; 12:04 PM ET  | Category:  Food Politics
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In 25 years in journalism, the last six of them in food policy and regulation, I have never seen that kind of high-level dialog between a CEO and an author, certainly not for public consumption.

Even assuming he had lots of help writing it, Mackey's level of detail, statistics, and sophistication -- together with obviously personal viewpoints that could not have come from a flack -- sets the bar for CEO responsivness. What a refreshing change from the pablum and bromides served up from most CEOs and their communications people.

And I think he made Pollan look pretty silly for failing to contact Whole Foods in writing the book.

Posted by: Meridian | June 29, 2006 04:43 PM

This is really great. Thanks for linking to the exchange!

Posted by: Jake | June 30, 2006 11:25 AM

I agree that Mackey's willingness to engage with Pollan is refreshing. However, I would also note that Whole Foods is able to command the higher than average prices it charges because many of its customers hold core beliefs about the quality and integrity of Whole Foods' products. If those beliefs suffer a credible challenge, which clearly Mackey believes Pollan's book to be, customers would very likely abandon Whole Foods for other, more integral markets (i.e., farmers' markets) or for the less expensive supermarkets. Thus, it's very much in Mackey's interest to provide a detailed and convincing response to Pollan.

Having said that, I found parts of Pollan's criticisms to be a more valid representation of what actually is stocked in the Whole Foods' aisles than Mackey would purport. Mackey's comments about supporting local producers notwithstanding, when I shopped at Whole Foods (as I did exclusively for 4 years), I rarely encountered locally produced foods even when crops were in season. Also, I found that Whole Foods was entirely too willing to offer up conventional products as a viable option when they failed to stock organic products.

Posted by: McLean | July 3, 2006 03:59 PM

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