It’s a fact of life: Nobody’s perfect. And just like that’s true for people, it’s also true for companies. The bigger and more popular a company gets, the more likely it is to do something to get itself into trouble. And Whole Foods is certainly no stranger to getting itself into trouble.
In the late 1990s, the anti-union Whole Foods faced harsh criticism for refusing to support the United Farm Workers union’s campaign for improved wages and working conditions for strawberry pickers. Instead, the company chose to bypass the union and support the farm workers directly, by holding a “National 5% Day” where $125,000 was donated to providing social services to the farm workers.
In 2013, two Whole Foods employees in Albuquerque claimed that they were suspended after complaining about being told that they weren’t allowed to speak Spanish on the job. A Whole Foods rep countered that they were actually suspended for being “rude and disrespectful,” but the event shed light on the chain’s belief in having a “uniform form of communication” among employees while they’re on the clock. This policy was quickly revised after public outcry.
In 2014, it was uncovered that Whole Foods overcharged customers in its 70-plus California locations, usually in the prepared foods department. For example, kebabs were sold by weight instead of per piece, and the weight of containers wasn’t subtracted from salad bar items that are sold by weight. The company agreed to pay an $800,000 settlement.
While rabbit is a popular protein all across the globe, to many squeamish Americans it’s still considered a cute house pet. So when Whole Foods began selling rabbit in 2014, it sparked a nationwide boycott by the vegetarian activist group House Rabbit Society. Whole Foods continues to sell rabbit, assuring consumers that they’re treated as ethically as possible.
In January 2015, an activist group called Direct Action Everywhere released a video taken at a Northern California farm that supplies organic eggs to Whole Foods. It depicted crowded and dirty conditions and injured birds. Whole Foods toured the farm in question in response to the video, but was unable to find corroborating evidence of inhumane treatment.
Whole Foods founder John Mackey is a staunch libertarian, and is against the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. In a lengthy 2009 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, he defended Whole Foods’ own insurance policy (which is infamous for its very high deductibles), while coming out against Obamacare. The op-ed caused a lot of controversy, as well as sparking a movement to boycott the company.
This one wasn’t Whole Foods’ fault, but it was still a major controversy. In July of 2013 a farmstead cheese company called Crave Brothers recalled three of its cheeses, all of which have been sold at Whole Foods, after a listeria outbreak was traced to them. The listeria contamination left one dead and several sick.
In one of the more disgusting controversies to hit the company, news was made in May 2014, when an employee at a San Francisco Whole Foods told local news outlets that he discovered about 40 dead maggots inside the store’s meat case. “Our top priority is to ensure this issue does not happen again,” a store representative said.
In June 2014, multiple outlets reported that an artisan goat cheese company called Haystack Mountain that provided cheese to Whole Foods was outsourcing its cheesemaking production to a local prison where prisoners were paid only 60 cents per day. This was quickly debunked, however, as a representative for the cheesemaker told us that the company was only purchasing its milk from a dairy farm on prison grounds, and that the cheese is made by artisans who work full-time for the company.
Photo Modified: Flickr / The National Guard / CC BY 4.0
Baltimore was thrown into chaos in April 2015 following the death of a man named Freddie Gray while in police custody, and protests evolved into looting and brick-throwing, necessitating the National Guard being called in. Whole Foods donated sandwiches to the National Guardsmen on the scene, provoking a mixture of patriotic praise as well as outright criticism, with many criticizing the company for not donating food to local children instead, who were forced to go without free lunch due to schools being closed.
Just like in California, it was discovered in 2015 that nearly every Whole Foods location in New York City was overcharging customers on prepared food items. Locations in New York City received more than 800 violations during 107 inspections dating back to 2012, racking up more than $58,000 in fines. After admitting that some items were packaged and weighed incorrectly, the chain was forced to pay a $500,000 settlement to the city. Investigators didn’t accuse the chain of purposely overcharging consumers, but the city is forcing the company to train its employees on how to properly weigh food.
In July 2016, Whole Foods became the subject of a class-action lawsuit over its labeling of an ingredient called “evaporated cane juice,” which those suing claimed was just a way to sidestep the fact that they’re adding extra sugar to a product. Similar lawsuits have been levied against Trader Joe’s, Blue Diamond, and Chobani. While the plaintiffs argued that using the term was a way to conceal what it really is – sugar – a judge tossed the case out.
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In a hilarious episode that many Whole Foods detractors claim summed up everything that’s wrong with the company, in August 2015 a woman shopping at a Los Angeles Whole Foods snapped a photo of bottles of water with a few stalks of asparagus inside being sold as “asparagus water” and selling for an astronomical $5.99. The photo went viral, and Whole Foods removed the item from shelves, claiming that the water was meant to be infused with asparagus.
PETA sued Whole Foods in September 2015, claiming that the chain was charging a premium for animal welfare standards that aren’t as strict as they appear, especially cage-free hens. Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb responded via a post on the company’s website calling the lawsuit “cynical,” “publicity-driven,” and a “waste of the court’s time and tax payer money.” No word on if or how that case was resolved.
When it comes to food safety, Whole Foods’ track record is quite impressive. But its reputation took a major hit last October, when more than 500 pounds of food was recalled by the company over the course of a month due to listeria contamination. The first product recalled was organic Roquefort, and the following week 250 pounds of pre-packaged curry chicken salad and deli pasta salad were recalled as well. No illnesses were reported, but the recalls caused the company’s stock to take a five percent hit.
Some eagle-eyed Twitter users cried racism in January 2016, when they spotted a recipe the company posted on Twitter that combined collard greens with peanuts. The outrage was spurred by the idea that the company identifies both products as staples of African-American cuisine, and some found the tweet to be insensitive.