Organic Industry’s Thin Skin

Whole Foods Market can dish it out, but they sure can’t take it. The largest organic foods retailer developed a mega-profitable business by scaring consumers about conventionally produced foods supposedly "contaminated" with chemicals and biotechnology.

Now Whole Foods is having a mega-hissy fit because someone says its products might not be so unadulterated after all.

The American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit group that addresses consumer health issues, notified Whole Foods on July 11 of ACSH’s intent to sue Whole Foods for violating California Health & Safety Code section 25249.6, better known as Proposition 65. The law requires warning labels on products containing substances deemed "toxic" by California.

ACSH says Whole Foods illegally sells its whole wheat organic bread without a warning label. Swedish researchers announced in April that baking carbohydrate-rich products like bread produces the chemical acrylamide — listed as a toxic substance under Proposition 65.

ACSH doesn’t really believe that any minute amount of acrylamide present in Whole Foods’ organic bread is dangerous. But the state of California apparently does.

Whole Foods no doubt caught on that ACSH was simply playing a practical joke to make a point about the silliness of Proposition 65 — a law that needlessly scares consumers and provides no safety benefit.

The company apparently was ignoring ACSH when the New York Times called. Food reporter Marian Burros wanted Whole Foods’ reaction to the potential lawsuit for her article in next Wednesday’s Times.

Whole Foods no longer thinks ACSH is funny and has unleashed its attack dogs (i.e., lawyers).

"This is no longer a publicity stunt of limited impact.  I [am] requesting that [ACSH] confirm in writing (immediately, for release to the press) that it does not intend to pursue any claim against [Whole Foods] and that it apologizes for any embarrassment or other injury to [Whole Foods] on account of your notice and your statements to the press," threatened Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher lawyer Charles Ivie in an e-mail to ACSH associate director Jeff Stier.

"[Whole Foods] does not intend to sue ACSH, if you will immediately rectify this

damage.  It is incomprehensible to me why an organization such as yours would have done what it has done," added Ivie.

ACSH is not backing down, according to Stier. In any event, the irony is rich.

Whole Foods papers its stores with advertising implying, if not proclaiming, that conventional and biotech foods are downright dangerous.

Whole Foods issued a press release last September claiming organic food is healthier than conventional food because, "… organic foods are spared the application of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides and 30 percent of all insecticides as potentially cancer causing."

Unfortunately for Whole Foods’ assertion, there is not a single shred of evidence that any application of pesticides has caused a single case of cancer anywhere in the world despite 50-plus years of widespread use.

About biotech foods, Whole Foods says, "As consumers learn more about the genetic modification of crops, or GMOs, there is increasing concern that biotechnology may be moving faster than our government's regulatory system is currently able to monitor and evaluate.  The effect genetic engineering may have on our environment and on long-term human health issues has not been determined by health officials.

The implication is simply false as regulatory agencies have conducted extensive reviews of biotech foods and deem them to be safe.

Last November, Whole Foods issued a press release titled, "Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner This Year?; Whole Foods Market Offers Solutions to Make Holiday Meal Memorable And Delicious Without Artificial Additives, Preservatives, Growth Hormones."

Omitted from mention is that these technologies have been extensively tested and approved as safe by government regulators around the world and have been used for decades without any evidence of harm.

But why let facts get in the way of a profitable marketing strategy?

A final irony is that New York Times reporter Marian Burros is no fan of ACSH and it’s facts-not-fear advocacy. Her upcoming article is more likely to depict ACSH, not Whole Foods, as the bad guy.

Whole Foods is lucky the conventional foods industry isn’t as thin-skinned. Otherwise, Whole Foods’ lawyers would have a whole lot more to worry about than ACSH.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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