Whole Foods 'buycott' turns grocery store into cultural battleground

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It all began with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Three weeks ago, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods (WFMI), published an article outlining his problems with the national health care service being championed by President Obama.

Within days, his piece had ignited a torrent of outrage among many of the store's liberal customers, inspiring a boycott of the company. By the end of last week, two major unions -- a group that Mackey has had issues with in the past -- joined the fray, demanding that their members withhold business from the company.

Now, in a particularly surreal twist, the Mackey brouhaha has expanded as some conservative opponents to the proposed health-care reform have launched a "buycott," encouraging their supporters to show support for the embattled CEO by patronizing the chain. Hordes of health-care opponents have already descended upon stores in Dallas, Texas and St. Louis, Missouri, and the "Nationwide Tea Party Coalition" is organizing grass-roots buycotts across the country throughout the month of September.

The buycott movement gives fresh meaning to the old saying that "politics makes strange bedfellows." Mackey, after all, used his op-ed to advocate a diet "consisting of foods that are plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat," and his blog goes on to cite diet expert Caldwell Esselstyn. Esselstyn and his wife suggest that followers adopt a radical diet that is purged of meat, chicken, fish, dairy, nuts, fruit juice, and even olive oil.

To put it mildly, there is a strange inconsistency when the CEO of a gourmet supermarket promotes a dietician whose regimen is almost gulag-esque in its austerity.

It also raises an interesting question about Mackey's new fans. In a recent, laudatory, episode of On the Record, Fox commentator Greta Van Susteren interrupted her praise of the CEO to note "he is a lefty, though. That's the other thing, he is a lefty."

Even beyond the conservative media establishment, however, the Mackey affair has thrown some very odd allies together. Van Susteren's guest, Dana Loesch, described the mix of "buycotters" who descended upon a St. Louis Whole Foods: "half of the group [...] were like 'we have never actually been here before, because we thought that it was really, maybe hippified.'"

Still, it appears likely that Whole Foods' new tea party patrons may become permanent customers. As Loesch went on to note, "we are going to make it a habit to come here every week, or at least twice or three times a month, and really incorporate Whole Foods into our buying routine."

It will be interesting to see how major, factory-farm producers of meat, corn, and other agricultural products react when they see a group that has traditionally been part of their political base migrating toward the Michael Pollan/organic produce end of the spectrum.

In the meantime, however, Steve Moore of The Wall Street Journal stated that Mackey is anticipating that the scandal will actually improve his company's sales, and one can imagine the health benefits that Mackey's new customers will reap. In the meantime, Trader Joe's CEO Don Bane is hopefully keeping his head down and his opinions to himself.


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