Last week, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and I argued that eating meat is unethical and unhealthy in a debate hosted by the Stanford University Law School. The room was packed beyond its 180-seat capacity, and many students were turned away. The day before the debate, The Stanford Daily ran a question-and-answer with us on the front page, in which we explained our reasons for being vegan.
At the debate, Direct Action Everywhere took over the room with banners and chants against Whole Foods and John personally. As I explained to the group beforehand, I believe they have the wrong target and that attempting to shut down discussion is tactically counterproductive.
First, Whole Foods has been far better on animal welfare than any of their competitors. Recently, a few major grocery chains received plaudits from the animal community for agreeing to go cage-free by 2025. This will be a full 20 years after Whole Foods, the first and so far only major retailer to get rid of caged eggs. Whole Foods was also the first to ban force-fed duck liver from its stores, giving anti-force-feeding efforts a huge boost. It was clear to me at the time that it was John’s influence that caused those changes. John is also a board member of The Humane Society of the United States, where he is an active proponent and funder of animal protection.
Whole Foods is also better than their competitors at promoting veganism. The vast majority of people make their dining choices based on taste, convenience and price—some of us make decisions based on ethics, but it’s a tiny minority. Anyone who is vegan knows that Whole Foods outclasses its competitors with regard to vegan options by a large margin. In short, Whole Foods makes vegan eating easier, so that people can make choices that align their ethics and their actions.
John has been vegetarian for decades and vegan for more than a decade. He advocates veganism openly, and he has implemented a plan for Whole Foods employees that promotes veganism as the ideal diet. He is currently writing a pro-vegan book, which will be widely read because of John’s prominence in the business community. I have personally heard him explain veganism and animal rights on dozens of occasions—always passionately and always eloquently. In short, if you are a vegan advocate, John is one of us.
Activists have attacked John for allegedly refusing to engage with them. In my view, this is unfair. In fact, when I came to John about three weeks before the event to tell him that activists were going to try to disrupt it, I was sure that he would simply call it off. To my surprise, he agreed to the debate anyway, because he finds the topic so important. Then, when we realized that a disruption was inevitable, I told John that activists were likely to scream at him as they were escorted out and asked if he wanted to leave. He declined, thus allowing them to confront him directly when he could have avoided it.
John does not own Whole Foods. As he explained to The Standard Daily, “I’m free to advocate for my personal beliefs regarding veganism and healthy eating, but not free to try to force Whole Foods to move in a direction that is against its best interests.” Within those constraints, it’s clear to me that John is doing a lot more than anyone else of his stature—both for veganism and for animal welfare.
It’s also worth noting that Whole Foods is a leader on fair trade, promotion of hemp and other issues of sustainability and ethical business practices. For example, it’s been on Fortune Magazine’s top 100 companies to work for every year since the list’s inception 17 years ago.
If the disrupters had their way, there would have been no promotion of veganism on one of the most elite campuses in the world. Thousands of Stanford students would have missed the front-page The Stanford Daily piece promoting veganism, and hundreds would have missed the debate itself.
I just can’t see how that outcome can align with the goals of animal protection or vegan advocacy.
– Bruce Friedrich
Bruce Friedrich is the Executive Director of The Good Food Institute, Washington, D.C.
Contact Bruce Friedrich at BruceF ‘at’ TheGoodFoodInstitute.