Whole Foods controversy

By linking employee discount plans to personal health metrics, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is courting controversy again.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey (Photo: Richard Drew/Canadian Press)

John Mackey, the eccentric CEO of Whole Foods, is literally putting his money where his mouth is – provided his employees put less food in theirs. In January, Mackey released a letter to Whole Foods “team members” announcing a new incentive program aimed at making its employees as synonymous with healthy living as the high-end grocery chain itself. In addition to enjoying an existing 20% discount on in-store products, staff will now be able to obtain up to an additional 10% off their weekly order of apple cereal bars and organic black beans if they meet certain health requirements.

But here’s where it gets complicated. Those who sign up for the voluntary program will be screened based on four indicators – cholesterol count, blood pressure, body-mass index and a nicotine-free lifestyle – and then be placed at the bronze, silver, gold or platinum discount level. The minimum requirements for an employee to reach the bronze level (for a 22% discount) are a cholesterol count less than 195, a blood pressure of 140/90, and a BMI of less than 30. Those aiming for the full 30% platinum discount must have a BMI of less than 24. Smoking disqualifies employees from any additional discount above the standard 20%, as does a body-mass index of 30 or higher (which, on the BMI scale, represents obesity).

Though the program is voluntary, it has already drawn fire from human-rights advocates who say it is unfair for Whole Foods to offer or deny discounts based on conditions that can often be hereditary or out of an individual’s control due to disability. Additionally, health advocates are decrying the use of BMI (a scale based on height-to-weight ratio), which many feel is not always an accurate reflection of a healthy body.

As a result, Mackey now finds himself facing off against his own customers for the second time in less than a year. Mackey’s libertarian views on U.S. health care polarized Whole Foods customers and shareholders last summer, following a much maligned op-ed piece he contributed to The Wall Street Journal. In it, Mackey said the last thing the U.S. needed was “a massive new health-care entitlement,” and called for “less government control and more individual empowerment.” Many Whole Foods supporters said they felt Mackey’s sentiments betrayed their own liberal views on health care, and called for a boycott of the chain.

Rosemary Bennett, senior communications officer for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, says that even though the store’s new program is voluntary, Whole Foods should tread lightly. “If it’s offering a benefit and differential treatment based on a health factor that in some cases could be considered a disability, they would need to be very careful,” she says. “If it’s an incentive program, it should be for an incentive people can do things about. Human rights are about accommodation and equality and providing as level a playing field as you possibly can, and the way you do that is to look at the individual circumstances.”

Mackey seems to have anticipated a public backlash this time around. In his letter to employees, he stresses that the program is an incentive and “not a new ‘benefit.'” He also admits the indicators being used aren’t perfect, “but they do have the virtues of being relatively good, easy to measure and not too expensive to monitor.” He added it’s possible the program’s biomarkers will be changed to “superior alternative ones” in the future.

“We acknowledge that none of the criteria individually represent a full healthy person, but put together, it can paint a picture,” says Whole Foods spokesperson Libba Letton. “You can participate in the program and still be on medication for any of these issues and still count your cholesterol as low. And for anyone else who has a disability, we are looking at those on a case-by-case basis.”

Mackey seems determined not to draw a line between his personal mandate and his mandate as CEO of a publicly traded company. Whether or not Whole Foods’ bottom line stays healthy as a result will be seen in good time.