Whole Foods Denies Caving to Right-Wing Pressure During Ramadan

The chain's unprecedented campaign to mark Ramadan with a line of foods that meet Islamic dietary laws turned ugly when it appeared to back down in the face of anti-Muslim bloggers.

By Bryan Gerhart Aug 12, 2011

After appearing to bend to the Islamophobic cries of a limited, but vocal population of rightwing bloggers, the Whole Foods grocery chain is scrambling to maintain its position as the supermarket of choice for progressive shoppers. 

When Whole Foods announced plans to mark Ramadan through promoting a Saffron Roads line of frozen products that meet Islamic dietary laws, it was celebrated by Muslim Americans. But that goodwill turned to broad anger this week when news broke that the chain may scale back promotion of these halal-certified meals, thanks to criticism from anti-Muslim bloggers. Whole Foods has since claimed that it never planned to renege and the Ramadan campaign is moving ahead as planned, but confusion surrounding the incident remains.

The controversy began when the Houston Press obtained an internal email sent by Whole Foods to its employees regarding the handling of the promotion for their halal products. The newspaper highlighted some of the statement’s more questionable content

"We should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered ‘Celebrating or promoting’ Ramadan," read the email, which was designed to provide employees with answers for shoppers about the products they carry. As the Houston Press pointed out, this stance seems to conflict with the way Whole Foods promotes foods for other religious holidays, which include signs that explicitly display the words Passover and Easter.

"With the introduction of this line company wide," the email continued, "and the beginning of Ramadan last week, we posted a product giveaway on the Whole Story blog (on July 31) to generate awareness and interest in the products. Some people have misinterpreted the blog post to mean we are celebrating or promoting Ramadan in our stores. The misinterpretation has generated some negative feedback from a small segment of vocal and angry consumers and bloggers."

In an update Wednesday, the Press posted screenshots of the emails, but added that the most blatant instructions not to promote Ramadan came from Southwest regional offices, not national headquarters.

According to Libba Letton, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, the email the Houston newspaper published was sent to marketers and graphic designers in the Southwest region (which includes Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma) in response to signs they had designed, which read only "Ramadan" and were awaiting approval for posting.

"It didn’t say ‘Halal for Ramadan’ or ‘Try our new Saffron Road entrees’ or anything like that. It just said ‘Ramadan,’ " Letton said.

Contrary to original reports on the incident, the signs featuring the word Ramadan and the crescent moon, a symbol of Islam, weren’t pulled; they were just never put up.

The angry bloggers who set off the commotion claimed that because the grocery store is providing foods that catered to the dietary restrictions of the Muslim holy month, it is "anti-Israel" and willing to do anything to "shill for jihadist interests."  The Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism, said these claims were false, responding in a press release that just as Whole Foods provides specialty products for Jewish customers during Passover, "it is entirely fitting for them to do the same for customers marking Muslim, Hindu and other religious festivals."

The chain of supermarkets doesn’t have national mandates for advertising its products. So while the Southwest region might choose to exclude that scary word "Ramadan" from signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other 11 regions will do the same. At the Whole Foods branch located closest to Colorlines.com’ Oakland offices, the Saffron Roads halal products were available, but without any signage to advertise their presence.

This isn’t the first time Whole Foods’ consumers have shaken their heads at the grocery store. In 2009, CEO John Mackey posted an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal rallying against President Obama’s then-plan for health care reform. Advocates led a boycott of the chain while some right-leaning shoppers began spending in the markets to show their support. 

Whole Foods claims this latest controversy was a mistake resulting from something similar to a digital game of telephone.

"The main thing that we want our customers to know is that this is a misunderstanding that stemmed from a couple of individuals," Letton explained. "We have talked to these people, we have corrected it … and hopefully this won’t happen again."