Go organic and get your healthcare reform for free

Liberal backlash against Whole Foods boss after he criticises Obama's plans

Barack Obama and the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods have something in common: they are both struggling with a backlash of disenchantment from the people who in the past have shown them the most love: liberals. And, bizarrely, it is healthcare reform that is causing all the strife.

Mr Obama perhaps always knew that he would be tested through the dog-days of summer on healthcare reform. But that Whole Foods, which now covers most of the US and also has outposts in London, has become embroiled in the debate is more surprising. The person to blame is John Mackey.

Maybe it was the Margaret Thatcher quote right at the beginning – "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money" – that got him in trouble or maybe it was just that he sounded so terribly conservative. But a column critical of Barack Obama's reforms penned by Mr Mackey, the CEO and founder of Whole Foods, for the Wall Street Journal, has many of his customers reaching for tomatoes – and not the organic ones from his shelves.

Furious erstwhile fans have so far congregated in a Facebook group called Boycott Whole Foods, which as of yesterday had almost 14,000 members. Its main page last night included calls for picketing at its anchor outlet in Manhattan at Union Square. "I don't shop at Whole Foods – too expensive. And now, I'll make sure none of my friends do either!" declared Vincent Bitetto of New Jersey in a typical post.

At the very least the chain appears to be facing a public relations disaster. It surely has not escaped the notice of Mr Mackey that there might be some dissonance between the libertarian views he is apt to express and the liberal leanings of the people who pay premium prices for his pesticide-free, water-drizzled food.

His staff sees the problem, apparently. "Certainly when our customers tell us they are unhappy to the extent that they are boycotting our stores, we are concerned," acknowledged Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for the chain. "We don't want them to leave us."

And Wall Street, which was already concerned about the impact of the recession on the company's numbers, is also worried. "Whole Foods relies heavily on its brand and image," notes Michelle Chang with the investment research firm Morningstar. "Any concern about its image would damage sales heavily. Whole Foods holds a certain appeal to consumers and if it deviates from that it could see some negative reaction from consumers."

In a blog on the company website, Mr Mackey partly blames the furore on a headline added by editors – "The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare". However, it would be hard for anyone not to conclude that he is opposed to the President's reform plans.

"While we clearly need healthcare reform," he wrote, "the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our healthcare system.

He does offer his own point-by-point prescription for change, which includes changes in tax laws and in the regulations on private insurers and, much less surprisingly, a call for Americans to eat better food.

"Recent scientific and medical evidence shows that a diet consisting of foods that are plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat will help prevent and often reverse most degenerative diseases that kill us and are expensive to treat," he writes. "We should be able to live largely disease-free lives until we are well into our 90s and even past 100 years of age."

Where to buy that food? Whole Foods, one assumes. Although Mr Mackey doesn't explicitly say so.

Big issue: The American diet

66 percentage of overweight Americans, with a body mass index of 25-plus.

2,154 Average American daily calorie consumption – 304 calories more than 20 years ago.

170,000 Number of fast food restaurants in the United States.

3-4 Number of fast food meals eaten weekly by the average American teenager, leading to weight gains of around 1lb per week.

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