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Cornell’s Brad Rickard Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference:
Will 'GMO Free' Be The New Organic?

For the most part, the war over GMOs is at a resting place. The anti-GMO forces have won the culture wars with a kind of aesthetic distaste for the technology, blocking its success in consumer-visible forms. That is why there is no Flavr Savr tomato anymore.

However, the science has won the practical war with extensive consumption and use of GMO soybeans, feed, processing corn and cotton — situations where the use of GMOs is not as ‘in your face” as with an apple.

The current election includes ballot propositions on GMOs, and we already discussed our assessment of these efforts in our piece on the California labeling initiative, titled Prop 37, GMOs, Labeling And The Nature Of Rights

However, the status quo on GMOs is uneasy. We’ve written about the violence in the GMO papaya fields of Hawaii in pieces such as Attack On Hawaii’s Genetically Modified Papayas Sparks Debate About Science, Organics And Freedom To Choose. And more than a year ago, we ran a “Voice of the Industry” article written by Jennifer Armen in sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS titled, The Promise Of Biotechnology.

Just recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the prospects for new GMO apples. It called the piece Inventing a GMO Apple That Won’t Brown, and earlier The New York Times profiled that GMOs might be needed to save the Florida citrus industry in a piece titled A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA.

Now Cornell’s Professor Brad Rickard is coming to The New York Produce Show and Conference to unveil new research assessing consumer attitudes toward GMOs and the prospects for consumer acceptance of GMO produce. Brad’s research is always insightful, and he has provided real value to the industry.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more: 

Dr. Brad Rickard
Assistant Professor of Applied Economics and Management
Charles H. Dyson, School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Q: Could you give us a preview of your latest research you’ll be presenting at this year’s New York Produce Show and Conference? In past years, you’ve challenged attendees with thought-provoking studies on a range of topics, including the viability of generic produce promotion; a case study on branding apple varieties; industry issues surrounding immigration reform; and an examination of local food demand at restaurants using Zagat survey data to analyze factors that influence wine list selections.

Now you delve into the politically charged arena of genetically modified food labeling. What is the focus of your research, and how does it shed light on implications for the produce industry?

A: This year, I’m giving a talk that looks at the impacts of commercialization of GMO varieties for fruits and vegetables and thinking more carefully about consumer acceptance of GMOs. A lot of people have looked at the topic, but not necessarily with a focus on fruits and vegetables.

Q: What jumpstarted the work?

A: Some of the motivating factors here: We’ve seen widespread commercialization of GMO grain markets and cotton markets in the U.S. and elsewhere, but we haven’t seen widespread commercialization of GMOs in produce. There are genetically modified virus-resistant papaya and squash varieties, and genetically modified insect-resistant sweet corn. These varieties were developed several years ago and have limited commercialization.

Q: Do you think consumers understand that? Why is there a proliferation of anti-GMO organizations and 30-plus states looking to enact GMO labeling legislation?

A: A few things are going on in the news. There have been GMO referendums at both state and county levels, and plebiscites on whether or not to label GMO products. GMO referendums in California and Washington State, for instance, have been on the ballot, but failed in both of those states. In California, it looked like it was going to pass, but close to the vote there was a change in public opinion, and the same in Washington State. Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have all passed legislation, but it hasn’t been implemented yet. They may be looking for a broader coalition of states before they enforce the regulations.

Right now, Colorado and Oregon have proposals on the table, with special plebiscites on the GMO labeling question. There is a lot of news surrounding these debates. I see all these kinds of discussions in New York. So there’s that issue, and then the products in the R&D pipeline that are generating discussion in the produce industry.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: There’s a genetically modified virus-resistant orange variety in development to help deal with the greening disease devastating Florida growers. And there’s a genetically modified trait, known as the Arctic anti-browning trait, that can be inserted into existing apple varieties. When you cut the flesh, it doesn’t turn brown. That innovation has been approved in Canada, and there’s been a lot of discussion whether to approve it in the U.S.

Q: Is industry opinion weighted toward developing these GMO products?

A: People in the industry are on both sides of the issue. There are people who see the benefits for the fruit and vegetable industry. If products can be developed to be resistant to viruses or insects, or can reduce the amount of pesticides used, it could be good for the environment and reduce costs.

Industry is hesitant because it is not sure how consumers will respond. They are consuming grain products and seem to accept those, although you can’t avoid them if you choose to.

Q: Why don’t we see more GMOs in the produce industry?

A:There’s a paper in Nature Biotechnology that poses that question. Is it regulatory burdens, a need for additional research, or more of a market acceptance issue? It seems to be a combination of these, but mostly due to lack of market acceptance for these varieties of produce.

There is a lot of research and development out there that hasn’t been commercialized — for bananas, carrots, lettuce, papayas, and tomatoes for example. That research is happening in the U.S. and all over the world.

Some people wonder if the concern is that a lot of fruits and vegetables are consumed in a fresh state rather than processed, since corn and soybeans are always processed. Are consumers less accepting of genetically modified products if they think of it as a fresh product? That’s one place where we’ve done some research.

We’re also doing some related work on non-GMO labeling. In the U.S., we do not see very many products that are labeled non-GMO today. Before GMO labeling becomes more widespread, what can be learned from voluntary labeling?

This kind of research gives us a better sense of what we should think about in R&D strategies as well as marketing approaches.

Q: Will your presentation at The New York Produce Show broach both these research avenues: the impact of fresh versus processed on consumer acceptance of genetically modified products, as well as GMO product labeling on shoppers’ purchasing decisions?

A: Yes. I will talk about our two separate studies: The first is thinking about consumer acceptance of GMOs across different food types; grain crops versus fruits and vegetables versus animal products, if a GMO trait is available. In addition, we wanted to find out if the degree of processing affects purchasing decisions. We designed a survey and crafted up questions that would get at these issues.

The second study looks at labeling of babyfood products at the grocery store.

Q: Is that a category with a higher concentration of non-GMO labels? I imagine with your growing family, you have some personal experience shopping that aisle!

A: That’s for sure! I have three small kids at home, so I’ve been in the babyfood aisle in the grocery store, and I see quite a lot of non-GMO labels. It seems to be one of the few product categories where several brands do have that language. At the same time, there are plenty that don’t, but that have an organic or natural sticker. Babyfood tends to be merchandised all together. A lot of retailers will put the whole category together rather than split conventional and organic.

The second survey uses Nielsen Homescan data. We target households that buy babyfood, what kinds and the characteristics, and we know something about these households, so we are able to define what types are likely to buy a non-GMO product.

Q: Could you give us a sample of some key findings? Did the results confirm your hypotheses?

A: First is the research survey we circulated to 1,000 people. I worked with colleagues Dr. Brandon McFadden, University of Florida, and Dr. Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State, who does a blog about food policy, and wrote a popular press book called Food Police.

It covers a lot of policy issues related to food, and he thinks very carefully about how consumers react to information labels more generally.

These results are being published in Biotechnology Journal, in a piece titled: Which Biotech Foods are Most Acceptable to the Public?

In the survey, we said, here are some food products, and we listed a total of six: a grain crop, a fruit, and a meat product, in both fresh and processed versions — corn, apples and beef, and corn chips, apple juice and beef hotdog. We designed questions to determine the participants’ product preferences, how desirable or undesirable, how much do you enjoy these products? Then we posed the same questions, now with the GMO versions of the same product.

Q: Do you explain what GMOs are? Do you provide a definition?

A: This was a question at the end of a larger survey. In this case, we intentionally didn’t define what a GMO was. Jayson (Lusk) and those who study these things find that if you define something in a positive or negative light, it will bias results. Whatever impression they had in mind is what we wanted them to tell us. There is evidence that defining GMO as how it reduces pesticide use or increases yields, for instance, or conversely with a negative slant, can influence the survey participants’ acceptance.

If I was to boil this down, what we’ve found is not too surprising but encouraging. These people were more willing to accept GMO corn than apples, and slightly more willing to accept GMO apples than meat. Grains were most acceptable, fruits were in the middle, and meats were least acceptable.

Q: Did the results differ significantly between the fresh and processed varieties?

A: On the processed side, there was a strong willingness to accept GMO-processed products, regardless of type. In particular, willingness to accept GMOs was stronger for the processed apples and beef, relative to their fresh versions. With the corn, there was a relatively high acceptance of both fresh and processed versions with less differentiation between the two.

We asked, what are various attributes of the GMO product that make it less or more desirable? We had a series of questions: Would you be more willing to accept a GM variety if it protected the farmer’s crops or reduced carbon footprint or food waste, increased yields, reduced pesticides, or improved nutritional content or lowered costs? We focused here on positive attributes.

Q: What did you learn?

A: Some of the things most important to consumers when looking at the different possibilities: whether the GMO product was able to reduce pesticide use, and also whether it could keep crop production in the U.S. The highest ranking was to keep crop production in the U.S.; the Number One reason to purchase a GMO product. Reducing the cost or improving the nutritional content were the second and third reasons to adopt GMO foods.

These were the attributes that would make them more accepting of GMOs. Some of the least important was whether it saves farmers time in the field, or increase farmers yield. The bottom line: they liked it if it had direct consumer benefits.

The take-home message is that consumer willingness to accept GMO foods differs on the type of product -- grain, produce, or meat -- and it matters how close to fresh and how much processing has occurred — the more processed, the more willing to cope with the GMO ingredient. In this study with Jayson Lusk and Brandon McFadden, the key result is that fresh or processed matters.

Q: How can this information help the industry in its approach to GMOs?

A: This coincides with the debate we’re having in the apple industry with the Arctic apple. It doesn’t change the nutritional content or price to consumers. It’s really just a cosmetic change, and a lot of apples are consumed as a fresh product. Based on our research, there is a real question of whether or not consumers in the U.S. will accept a GM product like this.

Q: What more can be learned by your second study?

A: To shift over to the second study looking at babyfood, we took a two-pronged approach to help us think more about consumer acceptance of GMOs. We used Nielsen Homescan data tracking the babyfood category, where some products carry non-GMO labels. While our study is ongoing, we have early results in learning what people are thinking about and what they are willing to pay for a non-GMO product. There are some non-GMO labels sprinkled throughout the store, but in babyfood, that labeling is more significant.

Q: In certain instances, a product in a category is labeled non-GMO to gain favor with anti-GMO shoppers, even when the entire category is GMO-free. Doesn’t that create some confusion?

A: GMOs are fairly limited to corn or soybeans, so if a product says non-GMO, where all products in that category are non-GMO, then it is false advertising. You see this with cholesterol, where it’s not an ingredient in a category, and the manufacturer highlights no cholesterol on the label. Then consumers wonder if other products displayed nearby side do have cholesterol, even if they don’t.

There are babyfoods where corn and soybean are used, so the GMO labeling is applicable. This study is ongoing, led by Percy Fang, masters student in our department, with Dr. Ed McLaughlin and Rod Hawkes. The four of us are working together. We’re in the early stages but starting to piece together results.

In the babyfood category, some products have an organic label, some natural, some non-GMO, and some multiple labels, organic and non-GMO.

Q: Isn’t organic also non-GMO?

A: The tricky thing is to get USDA-organic certified. If the firm has gone through hoops to become organic-certified, then by default the product is non-GMO. But not all firms decide to include both stickers. It’s hard for us to know how much of the information consumers know.

This is a data set that tracks purchases for 60,000 households in the U.S. We focus on those households that purchase babyfood. Out of those, we look at what they are willing to pay for babyfood, which is a good measure of what they are willing to pay for particular attributes, with organic a price-premium, and when it has a non-GMO label, a price equal to or succeeding the organic premium. The non-GMO label is the stronger signal.

Surprisingly, natural doesn’t resonate with consumers. In fact, it decreases their willingness to purchase. In a shelf space where there are competing words, consumers place greater value on organic and non-GMO. Babyfood is a category where you see all these words being used on labels. It allows us to analyze real data collected from consumers.

Q: Does it matter what types of ingredients are in the babyfood products? For instance, if it’s just a puree of peas in the jar, with no corn or soybeans…

A: There are different types of babyfood — dinner, fruits and vegetables, meats — and we look across subcategories of babyfood to think about how consumers place value on the organic and non-GMO labeling.

Are consumers of babyfood fruits and vegetables willing to pay a higher premium for organic and non-GMO labels?  After all, there are so few produce items that have GMOs, just some papaya and squash, although there is a lot of research being done in commercializing fruits and vegetables. It’s interesting to see how information resonates with consumers when they are not connected to R&D or lack an understanding of what GMO products are commercially available.

Q: Do you take into account consumer demographics, income levels, and other characteristics and shopping patterns?

A: Yes. We said, let’s look at different types of consumers and who buys organic and non-GMO labeled products relative to those who buy babyfood without that label.

With the non-GMO group, looking at what kinds of people are purchasing these products might give us a hint of who would be more interested in non-GMO products more generally.

There’s something going on here. When we separate babyfood consumers who choose product with non-GMO stickers versus those who buy without non-GMO stickers, we find some interesting results. When we divide the grocery store into different categories, if there are people who buy organic foods, they are most likely to buy non-GMO foods. For individual or broader categories within the grocery store, those paying a higher percentage of their bill on dairy and produce are ones who tend to gravitate to non-GMO labels on babyfood.

Conversely, those who spend higher amounts of their bill on protein, prepared foods and snacks are all indicators they are not likely to buy babyfoods with non-GMO labels.

Q: Wouldn’t a consumer’s income level play a role in such decisions?

A: Income levels are a very strong predictor of those gravitating to non-GMO. And age has a negative effect; as one’s age increases, the likelihood of buying non-GMO falls. Younger generations are more interested in non-GMO products.

We also have variable geography, with very strong regional non-GMO preferences in the Northeast and the West. We find the opposite effect in the South and Midwest. The Mid-Atlantic doesn’t have as much of an effect.

If you live in a major metropolitan region, it correlates with a positive effect on buying non-GMO labels. Also, the number of kids under the age of 18 in the household has a positive effect of purchasing non-GMO label products. Those spending more on dairy and fresh produce are more likely to gravitate to non-GMO.

Q: Any surprises in your research for attendees to ponder as The New York Produce Show approaches?

A: A lot of this seems pretty intuitive. Some things didn’t have an effect as I would have expected, such as education or marital status. I was a little bit surprised to see consumers’ willingness to accept non-GMO was bigger than organic.

A few years ago when products came out labeled local, everyone said local is the new organic. Now we’re finding non-GMO is trumping organic. The general findings seem to be as strong or stronger with fruits and vegetables. Our research is still a bit exploratory, but may generate some discussion with the industry on what direction to go.


One of the interesting questions is whether consumer acceptance is actually a very important issue. Our sense is that the problem is not consumer acceptance, but retail acceptance.

Retailers have a different cost-benefit analysis in looking at GMOs. No produce item accounts for a significant percentage of the retailer’s sales. So even if a new GMO pepper would double pepper sales, if the price is pickets outside the store, boycotts or derogatory comments in the press, etc., even a tiny interest group could make a retailer feel it is not worth the hassle.

The Wegman family deserves incredible praise because in spite of the controversy over irradiation, it has sold irradiated ground beef, an act that has probably given great joy to the sick and has possibly even saved lives as people with compromised immune systems have been able to safely consume a hamburger.

But such courage may be tougher to summon on the GMO issue, as GMO items will probably replace, not supplement, non-GMO foods.

It is an important and timely issue, and we thank Professor Rickard for coming to New York City.

We hope that you, too, will be part of the discussion.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

And New York is magical that time of year, so bring someone special and have them join in on the Spouse Program, which includes High Tea at the Plaza.  Let us know if you are interested here.

Remember The New York Produce Show and Conference is co-located with The Global Trade Symposium and the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum; for more info, let us know your interest here.

And we have retail, wholesale and urban agriculture tours you can sign up for by letting us know here.

If you are interested, we still have a few booths left, and you can let us know your interest here

And there are many opportunities to support the program and promote your organization through sponsorships; if you are interested, please let us know here.

Many thanks to Professor Brad Rickard and to Cornell University for sharing the most up-to-date research with the broader industry. We look forward to seeing everyone at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

As PMA Promotes Eat Brighter,
Questions Arise About Brand Efficacy
And Measurements Of Success Or Failure

We've written about Chef Sam Kass and the Eat Brighter program in pieces such as these:

White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts

IMAGINE-NATION: Will The First Lady’s Sesame Street Campaign Reduce Produce Consumption?

When Elmo Is Crying – Will The Sesame Street Brand Be Used To Market Sub-standard Product? Is The Legal Minimum An Acceptable Food Safety Standard When Promoting To Children?

So we went to the Town Hall meeting on the subject at PMA's Fresh Summit Convention anxious to learn more.

Although it was heartening to hear the sincere enthusiasm for the program, we always think that these town hall meetings would be more valuable if they had a diversity of speakers. If all the speakers are “all in advocates,” it creates an intimidating environment in which skeptics on the program are afraid to speak up, thus the programs don’t improve the way they should.

For us, the whole process is reminiscent of the early days of the national 5-a-Day campaign. Retailers almost immediately embraced the program. Most sincerely wanted to boost consumption, but we also came to understand that retailers, in general, like these sorts of department-wide promotional programs because it leaves the retailer free to structure produce promotions as the retailer prefers.

If a commodity group or branded marketer offers promotional expenditure, it comes with a catch: The retailer has to in some way promote the commodity or brand offering the funds. If that money gets diverted into a more generic marketing campaign, such as 5-a-Day or Eat Brighter, then the retailer has free reign to merchandise and market his stores as he wishes.

For the grower-shipper or marketer, these programs are inherently more problematic. Increasing consumption is a universally prized goal, but it is beyond the scope of most marketers. When Coke advertises, its goal is not primarily to make people thirsty, nor even to get milk or beer drinkers to shift to Coke. Its goal is mostly to beat out Pepsi for some market share.

So the marketing funds that companies have in produce are primarily geared to boosting their own sales and winning market share against perceived competitors. So it is hard to imagine that, say, Chiquita, will see a big upside to deemphasizing its own brand in order to utilize characters that its competitors are free to use. Chiquita’s whole branding proposition is to differentiate itself from its competitors.

This is not to say these companies won’t sign up for the program. It only costs $1,000. They can get some good publicity — perhaps some key retail customers will demand the program just as they demand private label — but, in general, companies want to differentiate their products and this program calls for them to do the opposite of that.

Although the powers that be like to trumpet the number of companies that are signing up for the program, it is important to keep in mind that these signups don’t involve committing to badge all one’s produce in this way — so the significance of such signups won’t be known for some time.

We confess that the whole issue of cartoon marketing gives us, in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase, a sense of “deja vu all over again,” as we have written extensively on the subject including these pieces:

Produce For Kids Research Shows Opportunity For More Fresh Produce Marketing

Pundit’s Mailbag — Characters And Marketing

Flawed Yale Study On Junk Food Promotes Policy Without Evidence

Is It A License To Print Money?

Is This New Product Destined To Be The Potato Chip Of The Produce Department?

Who Has Marketing Fortitude?

Grape 'Character' Analysis

McDonald’s Puts Health Spin On Shrek Promotion

Advocates for the Eat Brighter program repeat over and over that this program will help boost consumption among children, their parents, etc. Yet it is very unclear why they think this. Sam Kass, who was the personal chef to the Obamas and is now Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for the White House’s Nutrition Policy, was part of the Town Hall and he spoke over a video link to a General Session of PMA last year and quoted a spurious study. We debunked his speech in a piece titled White House Chef Tells Industry To Try Harder; But He Needs To Check His Facts. There are simply no valid studies that show that cartoons on produce items, lead to higher consumption by children or anyone else.

Beyond academics, we have lots of real life industry experience. Grimmway, for example, had the rights to Nickelodeon characters and found the results sufficiently underwhelming that it elected to give them up. True, Grimmway had to pay a royalty and the Sesame Street characters are free, but if sales had been booming, Grimmway would have happily paid the royalty fee.

And note — this is only talking about sales. Children are perfectly capable of begging their parents to buy a box of cereal because they want the prize inside — that doesn’t mean they are going to actually eat the cereal.

Beyond effectiveness, we worry about programs such as this because we want the industry to put its best foot forward. Yet there are no standards here. One industry friend told us he was signing up as he thought this label might be a useful way to get rid of his Number Two’s! Is that really what the industry wants? And what about food safety? There are no requirements for GFSI standards or third-party audits to be a participant.

Yes, we certainly hope that despite these problems the program will boost consumption, yet we fear that the way it has been set up basically guarantees that we will never know.  Imagine two years pass and consumption inches up a bit. Well advocates of the program will claim credit for the boost, although it might be due to some other cause.

Alternatively, if consumption drops a bit over the two-year period of the campaign, isn’t it obvious that advocates will simply say it would have been worse without the program?

No mechanisms for measurement have been set up and no clear goals have been announced. It is a very non-business-like approach.

There is also a question of what products are actually likely to be promoted. The public health priority is getting children to eat vegetables, yet to the extent this program proceeds, it is hard to imagine it impacting arugula consumption very much.

When we wrote our first piece on the subject, we pointed out that the program could actually hurt consumption. It is simply not clear that 15-year-old boys want to go to the lunchroom with Rosita on their piece of fruit.

Indeed, at the Town Hall meeting, Jin Jui Wilder, Director of Marketing at Valley Fruit and Produce Company, spoke up and mentioned that she had fought to get a school district to approve the program and that what the school wanted was the purveyor to separate out orders for the little kids and the big kids, as the school district was concerned the older students wouldn’t want Elmo on their fruit. She asked if there was any evidence that PMA could provide that the characters were not a turn-off to older kids, so she could provide it to the school and thus save the cost and bother of segregating their shipments.

Cathy Burns, PMA’s new President, responded in the most appropriate way. She said she would call the good folks at Sesame Street and see if they had any such research.

Cathy is smart and professional and was widely praised for her work on the Produce Traceability Initiative, but this very professional response raised the obvious question: How in the world could PMA recommend the whole industry promote this program without having carefully studied questions such as this?

Marketing is not just about finding things that will win over one market segment. It is about carefully weighing who will be attracted and who will be repelled by any given message. We are in the midst of political advertising season, and the dilemma is very clear. A candidate can woo conservatives and pick up votes, but how many votes does the same candidate lose because of the exact same position?

When Cathy was running Food Lion, if a private company came up with the idea that the produce department should throw out all existing produce and replace it with items branded with Sesame Street characters, even if the idea was thought brilliant to Food Lion, we doubt very much that the response would have been to instantly roll it out to all 1,300 stores based on someone’s hunch or beliefs.

More realistically, Food Lion would have done test marketing in a limited number of stores to assess the impact — positive or negative — on produce sales, product mix, etc. If the test was successful, Food Lion would expand the test and, if the test continued to show success, it would eventually be rolled out across the chain, although more new product ideas fail than succeed and others are successful only in stores of certain demographics.

The obvious approach is to take a small city, find a couple of comparable cities, use one to promote Eat Brighter on everything from stickering, billboards, cable TV ads, character appearances and whatnot. On another city, do another type of promotion, just so we are certain it is not promotion itself that boosts sales, and use a third city as a control.

Then we wind up with useful information. We can tweak the program to make it better, we can justify the expense of the rollout, or we can stop before the investment gets too great.

If this approach is too difficult, at least test it in a limited number of stores of different demographics to see what happens.

The industry wants PMA to help boost consumption, but just engaging in promotions without evidence of efficacy may not be helping the industry boost consumption, it may just be wasting everyone’s time and money. We certainly hope the program works, but the evidence that it will do so is scant indeed.

A Walk Through Whole Foods And Why Its ‘Responsibly Grown’ Campaign Is Bad For Farmers

Whole Foods’ stock price is down over 30% this year, mostly because same-store sales haven’t met analysts’ estimates, and the chain has informed Wall Street that it expects lower full year sales and profits. The response has been the announcement of Whole Foods’ first-ever national media campaign – a $20 million investment that includes TV, magazines, newspapers and other media. The TV commercials are handsome:

What is not clear is how this campaign will actually help Whole Foods.

Whole Foods, of course, has lots of customers. However, those people who do not shop or do not shop much at Whole Foods behave this way for one or more of five basic reasons:

1)   There are more convenient options. The Pundit happens to enjoy shopping at Whole Foods, where the prepared foods section is really top notch and there are interesting brands to explore. But most cities do not have a Whole Foods store at all. Even those cities that do — for example, Pundit headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida — have just one. There are a half a dozen Publix stores, so we only wind up at Whole Foods when we have leisure time — not often — or have to be in that part of town. There are people very motivated to shop at Whole Foods but it seems unlikely that these ads will convince many people who aren’t as motivated into becoming such loyal shoppers.

2)   Whole Foods is too expensive. Monikers such as “Whole Paycheck” stick because there is a lot of truth to them. Although the chain has promoted that consumers can find less expensive options by shopping carefully, that is a bit beside the point. The way most people shop Whole Foods is expensive. Nothing about this advertising program changes that perception. Indeed, the high production values and the emphasis on values — as opposed to value —– will probably reconfirm the notion to many that Whole Foods is very expensive.

3)   Whole Foods doesn’t carry a lot of brands that people want, making it very inconvenient. If a consumer goes “all in” to the Whole Foods ethos, then a restricted offering is fine, but if someone wants some Diet Coke, then Whole Foods is a pain in the neck as that consumer now has to make two stops.

4)   There are plenty of other stores selling items that, previously, only Whole Foods sold. Most supermarkets and many other stores have lots of organic, local, and natural products. So even if one believes in these “values” that Whole Foods espouses, they have little to do with the retailer and much to do with the producer. Maybe ten years ago, this campaign would have been powerful, but it doesn’t really answer the contemporary question approaching consumers: Should I go out of my way to buy Organic Girl or Earthbound Farms salad at Whole Foods or pick up identical or similar products at many more convenient and less expensive venues.

5)   Some consumers are turned off by the ideology. They may want “whole food” but they hate the culture that Whole Foods celebrates — they don’t like places that urge them to “share your values, shape community,” etc. They would just as soon get their organic milk from Wal-Mart.

Whatever the impact on Whole Foods, the overall impact on the produce industry is not going to be good.

Just as we used to warn people to be careful about how they promoted their food safety programs, lest they imply that other retailers were selling unsafe produce, so Whole Foods’ emphasis on the idea that it has unique values that drive its procurement is a sticky wicket.

This is the point we recently made in our piece Whole Foods' 'Responsibly Grown' Program Turns Out To Be Pretty Irresponsible — Implies Other Farmers Are Not ‘Responsible Growers’.

We went to our local Whole Foods the other day specifically to see if Whole Foods was suddenly expressing some unique values through its procurement system. It is not.

On the conventional side, it was selling items such as:

Chiquita bananas
Driscoll’s raspberries
Driscoll’s strawberries
Dole blueberries
Superfresh pears
Christopher Ranch white pearl onions
Columbine Vineyards holiday grapes
Love Beets brand beets
Pero Family Farms snipped green beans
Sunset Kumato tomatoes
Sunset Gourmet medley tomatoes
Sunsweet fresh plums
Hudson River Fruit New York state apples
Heller Brothers grapefruit
Bee Sweet Citrus Preferred Chef Meyer lemons
Majesty (Five Crowns Marketing) California cantaloupes
Superfresh apples
Southern Specialties French beans
Ocean Spray lemons
Chilean mandarins packed by Lucca Freezer & Cold Storage
Pandol mixed variety grapes
Monterey Mushrooms
Bolthouse Farms drinks of various types

On the organic side:

Earthbound Farms salads and greens
Organic Girl salads and greens
Earthbound Farms carrot juice
Phillips Mushrooms
Deardorff Farms celery
Lots of Cal-Organic vegetables


Now there is nothing wrong with any of these brands. But they are indistinguishable from what one can find in countless thousands of supermarkets across the US. To claim that Whole Food’s procurement is uniquely promoting good values is just not true. The company buys from the same supply chain as everyone else.

Whole Foods has benefited over the years from ill-informed consumers who sometimes assume that everything at Whole Foods is organic.  That is not true either.

Now Whole Foods is claiming a distinction where there is no difference. Doesn’t that contravene a value in and of itself?

Farmers have to sell their products in many venues, and if Whole Foods is going to cast doubt on the procurement practices of other retailers, it will cause some consumers to hesitate and buy less. That is bad for farmers and for public health. It is also very unfair. Whole Foods ought to rethink its approach.

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