June 2007-The first Whole Foods Market is opening in London. Lee Hall explores what it means for British consumers, for small and local companies, and for people committed to eating in a way that respects animals and the planet.
Home of the Kensington Palace and Gardens, Hyde Park, and the Royal Albert Hall, High Street Kensington once also hosted several of London’s massive and traditional department stores. The last of them, Barkers, closed its doors in January 2006. The famous site was acquired by John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market .
This summer’s opening of Mackey’s upmarket grocery chain in England will not exactly involve a British tradition, but rather a Texas-based entrepreneur who boasts of bringing in the world’s biggest organic department store and the largest food retailer in all of London. Reports about the new store have mentioned champagne, sushi, and sake bars, a pub and three restaurants in addition to the vast retail space.
In 2004, John Mackey spent around $40 million to take over a British organic food chain, Fresh & Wild. That chain’s sites are currently being converted into Whole Foods Market stores. The plan is to keep the chain spreading across Britain -- Mackey names Edinburgh, Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford as prized locales -- and then into continental Europe.
What will it all mean for British consumers, for small and local companies ... and for people committed to eating in a way that respects animals and the planet?
A tour of the company’s website indicates an emphasis on pricey cheeses and fancy fish displays. N otably, the firm owns several fish processing plants, and says “seafood is really something special at Whole Foods Market .” And many of the North American branches feature full-service meat departments where customers are offered free samples, custom cuts, and personal recommendations. The store talks of “working with our knowledgeable and passionate meat and poultry providers” to lead the natural meat industry. The London site will feature an oyster bar. As for supporting local trade, Whole Foods’ public relations officer, Fred Shank, told the British newspaper The Independent last year, "Let's be honest. Great Britain can't feed itself."
The company does offset energy use by purchasing credits from a company that produces wind power. But it’s no stranger to long-distance transport, and certainly not to the promotion of luxury goods. And although Mackey donates substantial amounts to charities, including animal-welfare groups, the store’s obvious profit-makers involve the elaborate displays of cheeses, the unusual array of fish, and the butcher’s section. The organic chicken sausages, venison burgers, and organic pork mint, cumin, and coriander sausages are packaged as natural and additive-free, with photos of the chickens in groups, the deer on a sunny field, and a pigs walking on flowering grass. The chain claims to “give shoppers peace of mind” when buying the bodies that once belonged to individuals like those pictured on the labels.
New Ways of Relating to Animals?
A little over two years ago, as our members and regular readers know, a number of animal-advocacy groups endorsed John Mackey’s promise to integrate “Animal Compassion” standards into the chain’s meat cases. Such promotions are popular because both sides -- advocates and agribusiness -- can claim to have orchestrated humane victories. But when one reads that the success of the company’s Animal Compassion Foundation will be “measured by feedback from livestock producers,” Catharine MacKinnon’s haunting question comes to mind: Who asked the animals?
Beginning in 2003, when we first heard about this plan, we asked activists and the public to question Whole Foods Market’s portrayal of shopping for meat as meeting a definition of compassion. Our vigils took place in five North American cities when the company marked its 25th year by promising 5% of a day’s sales to the new foundation -- resulting in over half a million dollars being collected for this form of meat promotion. That early Global 5% Day became part of the splashy advertising of the company’s new site in London.
“Whole Foods Market is pioneering an entirely new way for people to relate to farm animals,” says John Mackey, “with the animals’ welfare becoming the most important goal.” With that, Whole Foods began fundraising so university scientists could conduct research on animals and invent “more compassionate animal raising techniques.” Mackey calls it part of being a responsible tenant of the planet. This definition of “responsible” is no better than the company’s definition of compassion. Much of the planet’s precious water and half its grain is going to animals bred into existence for humans to eat, and that’s neither necessary nor sustainable.
Let’s call the arrival of Whole Foods Market in Europe what it is: a triumph for profit. It is hardly a milestone in sustainability or responsibility. And it’s certainly no triumph for compassion.