Visiting Whole Foods from a Farmer’s Perspective
I’m on the road for a few days, so this evening I visited a Whole Foods store along the way. I bought some apples, raisins, and almonds to eat on my drive, and while I was shopping I wandered back to the meat section just to see what I could see. Whole Foods provides an interesting opportunity for me to gauge the general status of the natural, organic, and/or conscientious commodity food world.
Whole Foods seems to inspire polarized opinions, so I’ll take this chance to declare myself as someone who has no special love for it. But I’ll also say that I have no axe to grind. I see it as a social and economic inevitability. Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s exist as for the same market reasons that create nationwide chains like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom exist. They sell upscale mass produced products at a upscale price point. If Whole Foods did not exist, some other company very much like it would exist. I’d posit this as the business equivalent of the biological concept of niche differentiation.
For people with limited access to alternative food sources, Whole Foods may be their only place to purchase foods required for specialized or restricted diets, so please understand that this is not intended to judge anyone who chooses to shop there. This is just a farmer’s-eye view.
Most of the beef in the butcher counter was grainfed, but there were a few grassfed offerings. I have no qualms with their grassfed beef production methods. My beef with the grassfed beef is simply that it didn’t look very good, but they were still charging top dollar.
The pork is a slightly-upgraded CAFO product. Whole Foods states that the pork is rated at 1 on Global Animal Partnership’s scale from 1 (lowest standards) to 5 (highest standards). They characterize level 1 as “animals live their lives with more space to move around and stretch their legs”, but the details of the official standards document are about as generous with room to “stretch their legs” as airlines. It requires “minimum space allowance for market animals (greater than 55 lb or 25 kg) is 10 ft² (0.92 m²) per pig.” That means a pig needs to fit in a 2×5 space, which isn’t roomy considering that a full sized pig is about sixteen inches wide and four and a half feet long from nose to tail. I know that pigs often prefer to crowd up cheek by jowl, but 10 square feet doesn’t seem to be anything brag-worthy.
The pork chops on display look good, better than some of the overly-lean pork chops I’ve seen at mainline supermarkets. The Whole Foods pork probably gets you a better-than-average eating experience and a modicum of reassurance about animal welfare, but at near-premium prices.
The egg display is easily the most confusing section of the store. Each egg product is labeled with a nice-sounding sobriquet for the environment in which the hens live. But if people are looking for chickens that actually live on grass, I think the only products that meet those qualifications are the Vital Farms Organic ($7.49 per dozen) and non-GMO conventional “backyard” ($6.49 per dozen) eggs. (By the way, note that Vital Farms requires a minimum of 108 square feet per chicken, slightly more room than Whole Foods requires for a fully grown market hog. Think on that…) I don’t believe that healthy eggs and happy chickens are exclusively found in pasture settings. I’m OK with chickens in bedded hoophouses or other environments, but I do take umbrage at all the cute euphemisms that mislead consumers. Caveat emptor, especially when said emptor is buying ova.
What do I come up with after all that? I’m not sure what to make of their beef. I haven’t raised enough cattle to make pompous boasts about our meat quality versus theirs. I have some opinions, but I’ll keep them to myself for a few more years while I continue to monitor our beef quality. For the pork chops I have enough experience to make the pompous boasts that we can match or beat their meat quality for just an extra $1 per pound, all the while telling a much more compelling story about pasture raised pigs and organic feed. And for eggs, I can only say that $7.49 for true pasture raised and organic fed beats our $5.00 dozen by a big margin. I’ll need to sharpen my pencil and figure out if I’m pricing my eggs high enough to account for all my costs.