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Whole Foods boss investigated over blogs

Somewhere in America, word gets out that the country’s top natural foods grocer is setting up shop. Soon property prices start to rocket. Once it’s built, the Croc-wearing, Audi-driving “soccer moms” arrive, happy to pay over the odds for organically produced food.

It’s a fair bet that many of the customers are also Democrat supporters, the sort of Americans who want to do something positive for the environment. We know this because John Mackey, the chief executive of the world’s largest natural food chain, puts enormous effort into understanding what motivates the people who buy his organic carrots. And Whole Food stores, found in such Democratic bastions as Austin, Berkeley, Boston, New York and Washington DC, are all extremely profitable.

But the company is also at the receiving end of what many see as a politically motivated investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, which is trying to halt Whole Foods’ proposed purchase of a loss-making competitor, Wild Oats.

The commission revealed this week that Mr Mackey has been posting “voluminously” in online market discussion forums under the pseudonym Rahodeb, which is an anagram of his wife’s first name, Deborah.

So far there is no allegation of wrongdoing on Mr. Mackey’s part, and it is widely assumed that the chief executive of a publicly traded company would not be stupid enough to leak insider information on a stock discussion board, or make statements to pump up Whole Foods stock price.

But the commission is eager to show that Whole Foods is anti-competitive, and allowing it to buy out a rival health food chain would lead to monopolistic practices. The blocking of the merger with Wild Oats comes as Wal-Mart begins to move into the organic food business, sensing the enormous profits to be made. Wal-Mart, the number one grocer in the US, could quickly come to dominate the small organic food sector.

Mr Mackey’s anonymous blogging is but the latest of his eccentricities. He is a vegan, a libertarian and a fiercely successful capitalist who hates trade unions. He is worth an estimated $40m and, unlike so many of America’s mega-wealthy, thinks that’s enough. Last November, he slashed his salary from $1m to $1.

He dropped out of university in 1978 aged 25, to co-found his first vegetarian establishment in Austin, Texas, a vegetarian wholefood store with the ironic name Safer Way. Soon he was living in the store, using the commercial-sized dishwasher as a shower. When the store was flooded, loyal customers helped to clean up.

The company quickly expanded, becoming what the Financial Times called “the fastest-growing mass retailer in the US”. Last year, Whole Foods’ total revenue was more than $5bn and its gross profit was more than $1.6bn. The company has 181 supermarkets. It has also arrived in the UK, opening the world’s largest Whole Foods store in the centre of town.

Mr Mackey remains the driving force behind Whole Foods, and unlike other companies such as Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, which sold out to a corporation, he shows no signs of selling up. Instead he is increasingly focused on animal welfare. He has banned the sale of live lobsters in most of his stores and has developed a five-star rating for all meats sold.

“What he’s doing is educating Americans about food and sustainability,” said Bryan Meehan, who sold his company Fresh and Wild to Whole Foods. “He is intensely competitive in a positive way, but also deeply caring about the world.”

by Leonard Doyle in Washington, DC for The Independent, UK

Heirloom tomatoes are perfect right now

Heirloom tomato

Whether they’re ‘tom-aaaah-toes’ or ‘tom-ay-toes’, the big and fat heirloom babies at my local farmer’s market are utterly perfect right now. Wrinkled and creased, with an astounding array of colors, they’re soft and juicy and deliciously sweet. Almost bruised in appearance at times with their purple / green / black color combo, right through to classic tomato red numbers, I’ve been eating them for practically every meal this week. Here’s my breakfast, and very nice it was too! Classic San Francisco style sourdough bread spread with French style chevre goats cheese and topped with four big rounds of fresh heirloom tomatoes. Flavour set ablaze with a sprinkling of French Atlantic sea salt and some crushed black peppercorns. Quick, simple and inspiring.

Food coloring causes cancer

A food additive used to make commercial sausages and burgers pink may cause cancer. Scientific studies suggest Red 2G, (also known as E128), causes tumours in rats and mice and might have the same effect on people. After reviewing the experiments, the European Food Safety Agency (Efsa) said it could set no safe limit for the additive.

The European Commission is expected to ban its use within a fortnight, but products containing the additive on the shelves are not likely to be withdrawn in Europe. In America, there are currently no plans to limit the use of Red 2G.

Efsa has been reviewing the safety of colourings, many of which were approved for use 30 years ago. In a statement yesterday, the agency said its scientific panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids and materials had reviewed several evaluations of Red 2G since 1999. It found the additive, one of a band of controversial “azo-dye” colourings, converted in the body into a substance called aniline.

“Based on animal studies the panel concluded that aniline should be considered as a carcinogen,” Efsa said, adding that it was not possible to state that the cancer had developed because of the genetic structure of the animal cells.

“It is therefore not possible to determine a level of intake for aniline which may be regarded as safe for humans,” it added. “The panel therefore decided that Red 2G should be regarded as being of safety concern.”

The European Commission is “reflecting” on the assessment and is expected to act at a meeting with member states on 20 July. A spokesman said Red G was used in Britain and Ireland but was not used in Scandinavia.

Ian Tokelove, of the pressure group the Food Commission, said there had been concerns about Red 2G going back decades and it was suspected of being a carcinogen in the 1980s. “Our general view is that additives are totally unnecessary,” he added. “We don’t need them in our food. They’re there to disguise the quality of the food and in this case to make meat products look fresher and meatier than they are.”

Red 2G is permitted for use in breakfast sausages with a minimum cereal content of 6 per cent and in burgers with 4 per cent of vegetables or cereals. It gives meat a reddish-pink appearance that turns brown on contact with heat.

Feature by Martin Hickman for The Independent, UK. July 10, 2007

McDonalds milk going organic

The fast food chain McDonalds announced that all milk for its tea and coffee sold in the 1,200 outlets in the UK will come from organic British cows, starting the end of July. So far, 500,000 liters are sold in children’s Happy Meals. After the end of July, the company will need 8.6 million liters each year – a share of 5 % of all organic milk sales in the UK. This will make the company one of the biggest buyers for this product.

OrganicFoodee.com hopes the company’s food sourcing continues to improve in the UK and around the world. It would be a huge achievement if McDonalds decided to introduce organic milk into its restaurants across the USA, creating better opportunities for American organic farmers and providing healthier options for American McDonalds customers.

Organic fruit and veg better for your heart

A 10-year study comparing organic tomatoes with rival produce suggests they have almost double the amount of antioxidants called flavonoids that protect the heart. According to the findings, levels of quercetin and kaempferol were found to be on average 79 per cent and 97 per cent higher, respectively, in organic tomatoes.

The study was led by Dr. Alyson Mitchell at the University of California at Davis. Flavonoids can fight heart disease, blood pressure and strokes, and have been linked to staving off some forms of cancer and dementia, said Dr Mitchell.

Differences in soil quality, irrigation and the handling of harvested produce have made direct comparisons difficult in the past, she said. She had conducted two earlier studies to compare organic and non-organic tomatoes. In this latest study, due to be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the researchers used data from a long-term project that used standardized farming techniques.

Dr Mitchell said the findings can be explained by the availability of nitrogen in the soil. Flavonoids are produced as a defense mechanism that can be triggered by nutrient deficiency. The inorganic nitrogen in conventional fertilizer is easily available to plants and so, the team suggests, lower levels of flavonoids are probably caused by over-fertilizing the soil.

10th Birthday for Wolaver’s Organic Ales

Wolavers-10th-ann-logo-300

Wolaver’s Organic Ales is an independent family run micro-brewery in beautiful lush green Vermont, USA. They’re celebrating their 10th anniversary by launching a special Belgian-style farmhouse ale. It’s a rich full-bodied beer, brewed with plenty of organic malts and hops. And for every bottle of Farmhouse Ale that is sold, Wolaver’s will donate 10% to the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, California.

Another great reason to drink cool organic ale this summer.

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