Whole Foods tightens its standards on genetically modified products and sustainability
In the past few years, Whole Foods Market has gotten much stricter about where its products come from.
The natural foods grocer has rolled out a series of standards regarding animal welfare, seafood sustainability and genetically modified ingredients — to name a few —- that is unprecedented in scope for a major food retailer.
Whole Foods officials say they're staying true to their core values, while also reacting to changing times and concerns from their customers.
“I would represent these latest efforts as a further step in a direction we've been pursuing for 32 years,” said co-CEO Walter Robb. “Which is to provide some sort of clarity, some sort of definition, some sort of leadership in the marketplace.”
And while it's impossible to predict the future, given Whole Foods' prominence, it could affect the larger grocery industry as well.
While most supermarket chains have their own sets of standards, Whole Foods' appear to be the most stringent in the industry, analysts say.
“They've definitely taken it to a whole different level,” said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst for Edward Jones. Since 2010, the Whole Foods has introduced a number of standards:
• A color-coded rating program that measures the environmental impact of its wild-caught seafood. A green rating indicates the species is relatively abundant and is caught in environmentally friendly ways. The worst, a red rating, means the species is overfished, or that the methods used to catch it harm other marine life or habitats. Red-rated species were eventually phased out by Whole Foods.
• An animal welfare rating system for meats and other livestock products. The five-step rating system starts at step 1 (animals aren't crowded or kept in cages or crates) and goes to the highest tier, where animals spend their entire lives on the same farm.
• A rating system for household cleaning products, based on the environmental-friendliness of ingredients. Red-rated products do not meet the standard and aren't sold at Whole Foods. Products can't receive an orange rating if they've been tested on animals or have artificial colors. The highest rating, green, is given to products with all natural ingredients and “no petroleum-derived ingredients.”
• And this year, the company announced that all products in its North American stores that contain genetically modified ingredients will be labeled as such by 2018.
Robb said the reasons for the new standards have been varied.
For instance, the meat standards came about partly because Whole Foods founder John Mackey was very influenced by various books on animal welfare. Also, the label of “natural meat” was meaning less and less in the industry, Robb said.
As for seafood, the program was a reaction to concerns about overfishing and the environmental effects of certain fishing methods.
Other standards, like the ones on household cleaning products, were partly for competitive reasons — Robb said Whole Foods didn't have a “very good offer” in those areas.
As for genetically modified ingredients, Whole Foods first endorsed them for labeling in 1992, Robb said. But it never got much traction until a new process for modifying alfalfa, which is used to feed livestock, popped up in the news. And a proposition in California to label genetically modified ingredients in products last year — while it ultimately failed — further brought it into the public consciousness.
“It's up on the table now and people are talking about it,” Robb said. “It's part of the national conversation.”
But Whole Foods isn't reacting to market forces as much as it's staying true to its core values of providing high-quality foods, he said.
“From the beginning of the company, the core value No. 1 is selling the highest-quality natural and organic foods,” he said. “So in a way, the company is built on a standard. And that standard ultimately is the thing that sets Whole Foods apart.”
Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, said the new standards, especially regarding seafood sustainability and labeling products with genetically modified ingredients, represent Whole Foods getting into the “bleeding edge” of food standards.
But it's consistent with Whole Foods being a mission-driven company of “leading the consumer toward more healthy eating and living,” he said.
“It's just consistent with who they are, is the simplest way to put it,” Wolf said.
Yarbrough said the new standards are an evolution of the natural and organics industry that Whole Foods has built.
“It's just another way of building customer loyalty and building that faith in that, when they offer something they're serious about this business,” he said. “And these are ways just for them to say, ‘Hey, we're really serious about it.' “
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Stocks end tumultuous week on down note
- Kraft shareholders approve merger with Heinz
- U.S. employers add 223K jobs, jobless rate falls to 5.3%
- Gulf states reach $18.7B settlement with BP over oil spill
- H-D Advanced Manufacturing in Franklin Park buys aerospace components maker Firstmark
- Halliburton to close Indiana County office
- Government contests sale of GE appliance business to competitor Electrolux
- Alpha Natural Resources buys out European partner in Marcellus venture
- Millionth ’Vette was destined for history
- Bank of New York Mellon seeks to intervene in N.J. casino saga as power plant taps collateral
- Heinz executives to dominate post-merger management of Kraft Heinz Co.