Why Does Whole Foods Sell Meat?

(Hint: It has something to do with the economic system)

James McWilliams recently (September 4) wrote an open letter to Whole Foods asking them to close their meat counters.  This is noteworthy because John Mackey, their CEO, is himself a vegan, even though Whole Foods sells a lot of animal products.  McWilliams argues:

Do this because you can afford to do it. Do this because it is consistent with your articulated values. Do this because it is the right thing to do. Do this because you would be doing the gutsiest thing ever done in corporate and culinary history. Do this because, if you don’t, nobody else ever will.

John Mackey responded,

Giving up on our initiative at this point won’t slow the rate of animals being processed and it won’t encourage Whole Foods Market’s carnivore customers to stop eating meat. It will simply shift purchases of meat to other retailers.

In economic terms, Mackey is mostly right.  For Whole Foods to close its meat counters would create a flurry of publicity and strong applause from the 2 to 3% of the population which is vegan.  It might also result in an uptick in anguished thoughts on the part of some meat-eaters. But this would be followed by a crash as the “happy meat” crowd, and all the other meat-eaters now going to Whole Foods, head for the exits. This would create a serious economic problem for Whole Foods, and huge opportunities for their less scrupulous competitors.

The underlying problem here is with the economic system itself.  Not everything which is good for us is an economic good.  Fresh air, sunlight, and common-sense lifestyle changes are some examples. You can’t make much of a living selling lifestyle changes which would be a huge benefit to the public.

There are a few exceptions to this. There are some low-paying nonprofit jobs and a handful of cookbook and advice book authors.  Whole Foods has already “sold” lifestyle changes to a certain extent, by bringing vegan authors and information to their stores, and thereby is getting a head start on the lucrative market for fat-free salad dressings and kale.

By contrast, there’s huge money (like gazillions of dollars) to be made on pharmaceutical drugs, bypass surgery, genetic engineering, and livestock products.  And did I mention that the health-care business seems to be an expanding opportunity lately?

The problem is that our economic system controls our social system, rather than vice versa. The market value of Whole Foods’ getting rid of their meat counters is not much. The real value of their getting rid of their meat counters, though, is incalculable. Unfortunately, like fresh air and sunshine, it has no market value; you can’t make a living selling it. That’s why Whole Foods will continue selling meat.

This is not just a problem for vegans, but for our whole society. We need to understand the difference between economic value and real value.  We need to meet human needs with the best solution, not the solution that has the best commodity potential.  Nobody makes the big bucks by advocating simple, low-cost, common sense solutions.  This is a key reason why we have poverty, war, climate change, and high fructose corn syrup.

We need a society in which the economy is part of society, and subservient to the needs of human beings and the social order — rather than vice versa.  Society today (and the environment, and the animals) is merely a part of the economy, and people have to worship at the throne of economics just to stay alive, even if that means slaughtering the truth, slaughtering innocent people, and slaughtering billions of innocent animals on its altars.

In short, we need revolutionary change.  Anyone want to work on this?

7 Replies to “Why Does Whole Foods Sell Meat?”

  1. The major problem with modern food is not fat, it is sugar!
    Some 30 years ago most fats were removed from most processed foods and sugar was added to add “flavor.” Mostly because it was a cheap replacement…high fructose corn syrup. Now we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. You want to help people? Write a letter to Whole Foods asking them to remove foods processed with high fructose corn syrup or products with sugar listed as the number one ingredient. You will have about as much luck with having sugar removed as meat. Again, it might fly in the face of your agenda but it is not meat, it is sugar that is the major source of our modern toxic diet.

    1. This is a bit off-topic, since the idea of the proposed boycott of meat by Whole Foods is more to protest the ethical issues rather than health concerns.

      Meat has multiple issues: it is not just “fat” that is the problem, but the saturated fat and trans fats, the very worst kind. Meat is also excessively high in animal protein (linked to cancer), completely lacks fiber (just like HFCS) and routinely contains bacteria that will make you sick, not to mention toxic minerals like mercury and arsenic. Check out Dr. Greger’s video “Uprooting the leading causes of death.” Also, vegans still beat out healthy omnivores in terms of lower cancer rates.

      HFCS is bad enough, but because of all the extensive scientific literature implicating animal products in many and varied causes of death, you will have a tough time convincing me that meat isn’t even worse.

  2. Let’s stipulate that the word “meat” is more or less a euphemism.

    A few weeks ago you wondered why so many Buddhists eat meat.
    You’ve also suggested that Jesus was probably a vegetarian. But lo and behold, most modern Christians are not. Why is this? I believe it is part of the same marketing issue you address above. It seems in a culture where meat is available and widely consumed, it is easier to change what a given religion accepts as appropriate behavior than it is to convince people to break the meat habit.

    Once people start eating meat, they are not likely to stop. If Whole Foods stops carrying meat, people will indeed go elsewhere to buy it. If Christian churches require their members to abstain from animal products, people will go to church elsewhere. The vegan church’s coffers will soon be empty. As hard as it may be to accept it, it seems that the path to a compassionate life is lonely and narrow and few there be who find it. But our culture is changing. More and more people are adopting a meatless lifestyle. Fewer eggs are being consumed. Milk consumption is also way down. The market has had to change to accommodate these personal decisions. Now I see all kinds of milk alternatives every time I shop in the grocery store—and I see people buying them. I have read what you have to say about commoditization but sometimes I wonder if it is the train we will have to take if we wish to see society trend in the direction where we wish it to go.

  3. Thanks for all your insights Keith. Don, I suggest you read ‘The China Study’ by Colin T Campbell. Emeritus professor Colin Campbell was a meat eating farm boy when he began his research on animal protein. He conducted what is considered ‘the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.’ He now only eats plants.

    1. This is a great book which I read some years ago. It is original even with the genre of “books about veganism and health.” Campbell is a researcher, not just somebody compiling studies done on the subject. Especially interesting is his treatment of protein.

  4. Whole Foods is caught up in the long-running social revolution about environmentalism and health. This is sad because it’s not enough and nothing could help the environment more than veganism. If Whole Foods took the risk to become a vegan company, it would take on a truly revolutionary identity and be rightly rewarded by vegetarians and many fence-sitting uncommitted quasi-vegetarians for being a huge chain pioneering something risky. That would make a powerful statement.

    I’ve shopped at every natural food chain and many small natural shops in metro Denver since 1971 including Whole Foods since it came to town. Most of the people who shop at Whole Foods are not buying as much meat as they do at general grocers like Safeway and King Soopers. If Whole Foods stopped selling meat, many meat eaters would still shop at Whole Foods just because Whole Foods has so many high quality vegan foods. Other meat eaters would leave and if they are that committed to meat then good riddance, so what?

    The way I see it, if Whole Foods went vegan, then they would develop a much deeper following from committed vegans. Plus, they could use all that space from their bloody cadaver departments to expand their plant food offerings and that part of the stores would smell so much better. I can’t even walk through the meat aisle. The deli departments probably sell more meat recipe foods than the meat departments. But the deli offerings are still largely plant foods except for having a dominant meat-core, meaning the entire deli is of no interest to me. I’ve seen Whole Foods serving meat that drips into so-called vegan deli offerings in addition to affecting their flavor just by spending time in the same glass display cases.

    The idea that Whole Foods cannot make a bundle of money without selling meat is preposterous and lacking in bravery. John Mackey’s statement that eliminating meat sales “won’t slow the rate of animals being processed and it won’t encourage Whole Foods Market’s carnivore customers to stop eating meat” is an insecure clinging to the past. It’s just totally incorrect because it would in fact encourage many consumers to go vegan by way of being a huge corporate endorsement to the small but highly controversial cause of vegetarian ethics and consumerism.

    I personally think that John Mackey should stand up to his own vegan values a lot more strongly in his CEO role. But even if he did, Whole Foods is run by stockholders and a corporate structure, meaning unless he has majority shares, he could be replaced by Mo Siegel or someone else on the current Board of Directors. Mo built Celestial Seasonings. In the 1990s, he published a tea book that had no less than thirty meat recipes. So I think we are naive to think that Whole Foods is likely to take the meat issue seriously.

    The bottom line is that Whole Foods is a “happy meat” company, meaning that they have taken up a leadership position toward the welfare of animals who are still being killed. It’s a half step and considering that animals have a right to live and we have no need to eat them, it’s still a vast and painful animal holocaust and a goose step. The word ‘holocaust’ by the way, preceded the infamous recent one of the last century by thousands of years. It refers to animals being forced into a fire. Everywhere on Earth, billions of animals are fleeing humans, even in the oceans. Humankind is a culture of death more than anything. Our civilization is totally false because of this. Ask Pythagoras, ask Jesus, ask Einstein, ask Gandhi.

    The current politics of meat versus vegan is largely and incorrectly viewed as a democratic consumer choice. Yes consumer choice is good except that nobody really has the right to condemn a single animal life when there is no compelling necessity to eat their flesh.

    As Whole Foods has become a leading icon of environmentalism and organic consumerism, it unfortunately defines these causes in the consumer mentality as ‘green meat’ and ‘humane meat’, meaning they are essentially putting forth a meat future with less brutality. But animals are still dying no less under that Whole Foods mentality.

    The future is vegan. It may take a few generations or a few centuries, but I’m convinced that many hearts will awaken to ahimsa and our cause will someday be mainstream if we become more brave and committed. Educating consumers is not enough. We must make them feel how animals are suffering and show that we have a commitment with solidarity. When we convey the feeling of animal slavery and death, we have more impact.

    These creatures that are dying are our brothers and sisters. We are NOT superior to them in any way, regardless of our so-called intelligence. As Prabhupada said, ignorance means to ignore the truth. That is the great accomplishment of human intelligence. We ignore animal suffering each time we eat them. Thus we remain profoundly ignorant when we enjoy that taste on our tongues. Intelligence must be measured first by compassion. Whole Foods should promote fully compassionate consumerism as a corporate value. Animal welfare is not complete if each animal is still taken off to execution chambers, never to be seen again except as torn, sliced and bleeding flesh at the grocery store.

    Sorry for the long winded rant but I’ve been frustrated about green meat and happy meat for many years. We can do a lot more.

    1. A lot has changed in the last three years since I first wrote my post. There are economic, political, and social pressures building for a better approach to our agricultural system. Similar pressures are building on other parts of our bloated consumer economy, such as those pressures on the energy sector. Radical change is still a ways off, but it’s coming, and it’s possible that Whole Foods would at some point sell exclusively vegan foods.

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