Thursday, March 1, 2007

In Pollan vs. Mackey, Whole Foods' Billion Dollar Kid Won by Default

By John Birdsall
Thu, Mar 1, 2007 at 3:28 PM

Fans expecting a WWF-style smackdown last night between food journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey left bitterly disappointed. The roughly two-hour exchange before a hometown audience of 2,000 in Berkeley was anything but rough. Rather, it was the kind of gentlemanly, half-hearted tussle that provokes burlier crowds than the ones packed into Zellerbach Hall to boo and heave metal folding chairs into the ring.

Before the event it seemed like Mackey, the Billion Dollar Kid from Austin, had agreed to a cage match blindfolded and with one hand duct-taped to his thigh. Six months ago, the Whole Foods co-founder -- a Boomer capitalist who talks a lot about evolving consciousness -- evolved a defensive critique of Pollan's take on his corporation in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Pollan bashed the ginormous natural-and-luxury-foods retailer for carrying water for Organic Inc., the pesticide-free face of Big Agro. By stocking its bins with goodies from Earthbound Farm and Cal Organic, Whole Foods was essentially squeezing out small farmers struggling at the local level. Mackey posted an eleven-page response on the Whole Foods Web site. The pale, elfish-looking wheat grass mogul had thrown down.

Pollan did what egghead intellectuals do: He began a dialogue. Last night's public sit-down, hyped as "The Past, Present, and Future of Food," promised to be the title match. Certainly the public thought so. After hundreds of tickets for the J-School-sponsored event sold out within hours, it moved from Wheeler Hall to Zellerbach. But it might as well have moved to the Whole Foods' corporate boardroom and been produced as a Webinar. In the end, Pollan failed to raise many substantive questions. And in the absence of a muscular challenge, Mackey used the evening to promote his company's upcoming initiatives.

The CEO worked the crowd like a pro. After Pollan's brief introduction, the Billion Dollar Kid -- a vision of Bill Gates preppy in bland khakis and a cranberry-colored Whole Foods logo button-down Oxford shirt -- unleashed a 45-minute PowerPoint that sketched the broad sweep of food cultivation. Nothing like a glimpse of Stonehenge to lodge the cereal aisle and rotisserie-chicken bar of your average Whole Foods in the broad sweep of human progress. Next, Mackey pressed play on a five-minute film of the brutality of industrial animal farming: beakless chickens, lame pigs dragged to slaughter, a cow twitching in agony after its neck had been slit. With the audience shifting uncomfortably in its fold-down seats, the Billion Dollar Kid had them: From that point on, anything he said about the good things Whole Foods had on its corporate to-do white board seemed downright enlightened.

For his part, Pollan seemed squeamish with the idea of getting Mackey on the ropes. He denied he'd slammed Whole Foods' support of Big Agro in his book. He literally applauded two new initiatives Mackey had brought to win over the initially hostile Berkeley crowd, as if he were throwing cigars from the ring. One was a $30 million venture capital fund to invest in what Mackey called "unique food artisans around the planet." Another was a partnership with third-party certifying bodies to make sure that merchandise showing up on Whole Foods shelves has a plausible fair-trade designation. It worked: The crowd applauded, too, swept up by the news of initiatives that, in a sense, will help brand the pricey goodies at Whole Foods.

The only thing remotely like a sucker punch came from a questioner. Pollan rifled through a small stack of audience questions on green index cards. He asked Mackey if, given the rates of global overfishing, Whole Foods was planning to rip out its seafood counters? Mackey seemed to wobble slightly until Pollan offered to catch him before he hit the mat. "Maybe I should give you the questions and just let you decide what you want to answer?" he said, apparently jokingly. But Mackey's stumble was fleeting: The Billion Dollar Kid was doing just fine. Even without his opponent's help.

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