In Giant We Antitrust

27 08 2007

Gavel

By Jill Ettinger

In what was strangely starting to resemble a Pink Panther spy movie, Whole Foods Markets CEO John Mackey was recently outed for behaving a bit like the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, disguising himself in various chat rooms and forums  in attempts to boost the reputation of his beloved supermarket chain. Despite Mackey’s clumsy antics, the announcement came last week that Whole Foods received clearance from the U.S. Court of Appeals to proceed with their half-billion dollar buyout of Colorado-based Wild Oats Markets.

Mackey’s “grassroots” networking came under the microscope as the FTC was crying antitrust, challenging the merger and insinuating that Whole Foods would gain major market domination in the organic and natural products segment, limiting customer choices and commanding higher prices in an already expensive category. What is so curious about this claim is the fact that organic food represents less than 4% of total food sales in the U.S.

That’s worth a moment of contemplation.

Who is being forced what here? Look at this way: only 3.5 or so mouthfuls out of 100 aren’t covered in pesticides. It’s true, lots of food choices aren’t certified organic and are grown conscientiously with minimal exposure to harmful practices. So even being generous and doubling the number of “safer foods,” that’s still under 10% of all the food consumed in this country – a startlingly low number, considering how prevalent organic seems to be. In Manhattan alone there are four Whole Foods markets, with two more on the way in the next year. Those residencies are fairly recent on the island, where long-standing organic peddlers like Westerly’s, Commodities and Lifethyme have been supporting healthy options for decades.

Theoretically, it makes for a good economy to allow diversity and competition to thrive, but is that what Americans are really getting? Corporate conglomerates like Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola and Kraft own hundreds and hundreds of major brands worldwide. They have single brands that turn more revenue than the entire organic industry. It’s the American way around antitrust laws – buy the competing brands, control growth yielding to the cash cows. Let the people think they’re getting choices. That way, they’ll actually buy more.

Though we have the largest economy in the world (GDP is roughly $13.6 trillion), our nation is the largest debtor, owing over $10 trillion – primarily to China and Japan, but even countries like India and Thailand have been spotting us. That’s kinda like Donald Trump bumming enough to buy a Vente Frappucino from the guy at the red light with a cupful of pennies. No wonder the stock market seems more volatile than ever. The personal savings rate in this country is negative; collectively we spend more than we earn, amassing houses full of gadgets, gizmos, wardrobes, cars. Also known as debt.

Isn’t this precisely the type of America the FTC claimed to be standing against in the Whole Foods complaint, or any other antitrust case? I use this word tenderly, but isn’t debt a form of slavery? If Americans are spending more than they earn on stuff that is most likely not good for them or the planet, our banking systems and government are not only selling us bunk products, but they’re not giving us much choice in the matter. They hock our children to corporate bullies in clown suits, and sell our souls to Chinese factories. Bigger is better. Less is not more; it’s not nearly enough.

But all is not lost. The Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger is a bright shiny solar panel beaming light into the shadowy dark clouds of our chronic trade deficit. Regardless of who-or-how the Super-supermarkets are being funded makes no difference in the big picture. If Whole Foods is able to effectively “heal” our country, things like hedge funds and private equity won’t matter so much. If that sounds bold, you’re paying attention.  The point is this simple. A pound of gold will always weigh as much as a pound of feathers, but one is obviously worth a whole lot more. Americans have been running the hamster wheel to pay off a lot of feathers. Health is our greatest wealth. It’s what we live for; it’s why and how we live. It’s our birthright, if we’ve got any – access to things that will nourish our journey, an unchallenged number one.

If access to healthy food options would have been decided a classic case of antitrust, we’d be in a lot of trouble. “You are what you eat” is a wise and timeless saying. Have we really spent the last few decades longing to become donut holes and candy corn? Is that the destiny of man? It’s not a cop out; we are individuals with freedom of choice, but someone has done a hell of a job tempting us with clever advertising and ubiquitous branding that have led us so far into disease, and debt. It just can’t last. Solving our country’s economic nightmare is a problem that’s going to take a lot of work, but it can be resolved. A clear mind and healthy body are the primary tools needed to figure that one out. Very soon thankfully, there will be at least 300 Whole Foods stores nationwide. They are open late, providing healthy nourishment we all could use. In this case, bigger is definitely better.

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