Shannon McDonough rings up customers at Whole Foods in Boulder last fall.

  • Whole Foods CEO John Mackey



Whole Foods, the largest natural foods grocer in Boulder County, is doing damage control and apologizing to its customers amid growing calls for boycotts against its CEO’s views on health care.

John Mackey, Whole Foods’ founder and chief executive officer, caused a stir after he wrote a guest opinion in the Wall Street Journal against a “massive new health-care entitlement” that will “move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system.”

The stance and his eight suggested reforms — including removing legal obstacles to making high-deductible plans and health savings accounts more available and for tax forms to allow for voluntary donations to help the uninsured — didn’t sit too well with Boulder resident Judd Golden and thousands of others nationwide.

“I’ve been a stockholder … I’ve been a zealous and enthusiastic supporter,” said Golden, 59, who is chairman of the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But this, to me, seemed like it went over the edge to the extent of failing to be perceptive of who his customer base is.”

Golden and his wife called the local Whole Foods stores, e-mailed company officials and posted their views — and their intention to no longer shop there — on the company’s Web site forums.

Golden, facing health insurance hurdles because of injuries sustained in a bicycle crash and because of his age, said he has a personal interest in the government’s health care reform plan.

Golden was not alone in his views. A “Boycott Whole Foods” Facebook page has more than 14,000 members, and the “Boycott Whole Foods” thread on the Whole Foods forum has generated more than 1,000 posts.

A boycott is not necessarily the right action to take, said Boulder resident Waylon Lewis, editor of “Elephant Journal” and author of a Huffington Post blog article on the Mackey issue.

“I feel like not supporting Whole Foods will not harm John at all,” he said. “Not shopping at Whole Foods will only hurt the green natural products businesses.”

Lewis said he doesn’t often agree with Mackey’s views, and he regrets the timing of Mackey’s piece and the influence it could have on President Obama’s plan. However, Lewis said, he’s supportive of the free exchange of ideas.

“I think it’s fantastic that he had the guts to speak his mind; whether it’s smart or not business-wise, I think it’s questionable,” he said.

While the Whole Foods situation is an example of “not all publicity is good publicity,” Margaret Campbell, associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado, said she doesn’t think boycotts will have a long-lasting effect.

“There are cases when there are people who do something that’s really wrong and that can hurt the company, particularly when it’s linked to the business of the company,” she said. “In this particular situation, John Mackey is giving his opinion as a citizen, and it’s not linked directly to the business of the company.”

Whole Foods’ Boulder-area employees have heard “passionate responses from both sides” of the health care debate, said Ben Friedland, a spokesman for the Whole Foods Rocky Mountain region.

In a letter to customers, Tom Rich, the Pearl Street Whole Foods store’s team leader, apologized on behalf of Whole Foods for Mackey’s words offending some customers, community members and employees.

The letter also included clarifications, such as: Mackey’s opinion was in favor of health care reform; the piece’s headline was changed by the newspaper’s editors from “Health care reform” to “Whole Foods alternative to Obamacare;” and Whole Foods has no official position on the issue.

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