Thursday, December 17, 2020

Whole Foods CEO on the Obesity Epidemic

 Whole Foods CEO Controversial Statements

By Josh Ross


Few examples in recent news point to a similar case in which Whole Foods CEO John Mackey found himself in. A titan in healthy living publicly criticizing the American people for their inability to make the correct decisions in regards to their health. He was met with obvious rebuttals pointing out the flaw in his argument, which lacked research and what seemed to be an inability of all the facts. 

All four major ethical theories would analyze the case in different ways. Utilitarians main goal in morally acceptable actions is whether they maximize happiness. They would view Mackey's comments as unethical as he did not aim to maximize the good things in the world, only emphasizing the bad. Kantians judge actions based on the motivations behind an individual's actions. They would find him unethical in his comments if his motivation was not of good intentions. Lastly, Virtue theory would look at the lack of gratitude and empathy Mackey displayed as he lacked in both giving a solid indication of his character. Individualism states that an individual must look to maximize profit within the law. Adam Smith also stated that actions made by an individual must be made out of good will. Both would deem his actions as unethical as they lacked the correct motivation and did not attempt to maximize profit.  In his position, John Mackey could have provided value to the american people but instead chose to slander the nation for its “poor decisions”. This not only becomes a mark of his reputation, but a mark on the name of Amazon and its subsidiary, Whole Foods. 

Company Background:

Whole Foods Market, Inc. is an American multinational supermarket chain with headquarters located in Austin, Texas. The company was originally started as a healthy alternative to the prototypical grocery store. All of their products are free of hydrogenated fats and artificial colors. They also hold the title of being a USDA certified grocer in the United States serving only organic products. 

The business began in 1979 when current CEO John Mackey and his business partner Renee Lawson took out a small loan and opened a small vegetarian grocery store in Austin. They originally named the store Saferway, changing to the iconic Whole foods two years later. The company began to expand in the early 1908s opening stores in first Houston and Dallas and then by 1990 having stores in five locations in the southern United States. The company went public with its Initial Public Offering in 1992. 

Whole Foods has grown substantially since their IPO in the early 90s. They currently have just over 500 stores located across the United States and Canada employing close to 100,000 people. Amazon purchased Whole Foods in 2017 making them a subsidiary of the E-commerce giant. The purchase was valued at $13.8 billion causing the stock price of Whole Foods to see rapid gains. 

To this day Whole Foods has held the image and values that they CEO John Mackey set out to create almost fifty years ago. The company motto states, “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet.”  The company is now listed on the Fortune 100 list and is the leading natural grocer in the United States. Many Whole Foods locations have developed all natural cafes and juice bars which has only helped to strengthen their image and business model which they will hold into the foreseeable future. 

The Case:

John Mackey is one of the co-founders of Whole Foods and is the current CEO, a position he has held since the inception of the company in 1978. On September 24, 2020, John Mackey sat down for an interview with the New York Times, who painted him in a very specific light stating “who espouses a high minded version of capitalism, sold his grocery store amazon.” In the interview, Mackey made some very controversial comments about the state of obesity in America. 

In one instance, Makey stated that, “poor decisions” is the fuel for the ever growing obesity pandemic in the world and more specifically the United States. He then went on to state that “the whole world is getting fatter, and America is leading the charge.” Then citing the reason as ‘ignorance” and “poor decisions”. He also cited a link between the state of the Coronavirus in the United States. Frequently citing that the obesity levels in the United States are making the pandemic much worse. 

As expected, Mackey was met with severe backlash following the releases of the interview by the New York Times. Many people were outraged over his comments. Journalists David Gelles cited the issue of affordability and accessibility for many people in urban and impoverished areas. In response to this, Mackey stated that, “I don't think there's an access problem. We have opened up stores in poor areas.” Contrary to his statement, research shows about 2.3 million Americans live more than one mile away from a grocery store and do not own a car. On top of this, Whole foods prices were “15% higher than those of rival grocery stores” according to Morgan Stanley.

Mackey has not taken back any of his comments or followed up with an additional statement. At the heart of his comments lies the topic of Obesity as a disease, or obesity as a choice. Clearly stating his opinion, Mackey believes that obesity is a choice. Essentially poor decisions lead to poor results. Obesity is the result of one's poor decisions and so called ignorance leading them to become part of an ever growing statistic. Contrary to his opinion is the view of the medical community. In 2013, the American Medical Association made the choice to formally recognize obesity as a disease. They went on to state that obesity requires, “treatment and prevention efforts.” Other prominent medical societies support this decision. These include the National Institute of Health which declared obesity a disease in 1998 and the AOS which did the same in 2008. The medical community has held this opinion for over twenty years so it is interesting for Mackey to publicly state his opinion as it clearly contradicts the work of many well educated individuals.

As a subsidiary of Amazon, it is hard to point to any indicators that would show as a result of Mackey's comments. Amazon's stock price has soared over the past six months and whole foods has held revenue and total sales consistent with their previous numbers amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic. Moving forward it will be interesting to see if Mackey makes a public apology or follow up statement. This seems unlikely as Whole Foods has a very specific target market that will not view the company less favorably after his statements. Also, they will not lose customers from the demographic that Makcey may have offended because they were most likely not customers in the first place. 


After being bought by Amazon for $13.8 billion in 2017, the success of Whole Foods is now the success of Amazon and vice versa. Amazon will feel the effects positive or negative that Whole Foods experiences. With Amazon being the biggest monopoly in the world, negative actions of Whole Foods will only affect them little but nevertheless they will be affected.  With Amazon involved come their shareholders. The actions of Whole Foods and their employees affect the shareholders of Amazon as their stock price is now indicative of Whole Foods Inc. In regards to this situation, Mackey’s comments don't seem to have hurt many people involved . This could change in the future as you may see a company revolt within Whole Foods employees who don't agree with his statements. This would in turn affect Amazon and their shareholders. Although this would be unlikely knowing Amazon’s history with workers right and their ability to join or form a Union. 


Utilitarianism asks to view actions based on the good that they bring. A Utilitarian attempts to maximize the good in the world while minimizing the bad. In the case of Whole Foods and John Makcey, the main issue is Obesity. While Mackey was correct in stating that obesity is a major problem in today's global society, a Utilitarian would find Mackey’s actions to be unethical.

John Mackey holds an important position in the Obesity crisis whether he knows it or not. As the leader of the nation's largest health food supermarket he has the ability to push people in the right direction. From his position of power and credibility, he has the ability to change peoples lives. His actions were unethical because instead of maximizing the good, he chose to emphasize the bad, Yes, Obesity is a problem, he is not wrong. Where he went wrong was in the statements on personal decision. Not only does this statement contradict the medical community but it also points out the bad in the world. If Mackey was a Utilitarian and wanted to maximize the good in the world, in that interview he would have stated Obesity as a problem and the need for a solution, and then he would have given the world his solution. This would be ethical action as he sees a problem, the need for a solution, and gives one. This could have been as simple as providing a sample meal plan and exercise routine for people to follow to help get them active and in shape. Mackey could have easily maximized the utility of his actions and brought good to the nation but sadly he chose not to. 


A Kantian thinker would find issues with the insufficient thought process in this case. A major difference between Kantianism and Utilitarianism is that, “Kantianism does not make decisions based on consequences”(Salazar 21). While a Utilitarian would look to evaluate consequences to aid them in making a decision, a Kantian would not. Kantians evaluate based solely on the will of the person behind a given action. When John Mackey stated that Obesity is solely the cause of poor decisions, he was in fact practising bad will. “Kant tells us that we should only act according to those maxims could be universally accepted and acted on” (Desjardins 38). In the making of every decision, one must remember Kants words and strive to ask themselves that same question. In the case of John Mackey, he should have asked himself whether or not Obesity is universally recognized as a disease or choice? If Mackey had in fact asked himself this question before speaking, he would have found resounding evidence contrary to the claims that he made in his interview with the New York Times. “The 2013 decision of the American Medical Association to recognize obesity as a complex, chronic, disease that requires medical attention.” It has been made clear by multiple medical societies that obesity is in fact a disease and not a choice. 

Mackey has not publicly apologized or issued another statement after coming under fire for his recent statements..“Truth telling could, but lying could not, be made universal law” (Salazar 38).Many people have stated that they simply do not have access or the ability to even make the right decisions even if they wanted to. Mackey stated that he believed that there was not an access problem, meaning people just make poor decisions. Looking at the data provides evidence against Mackey's claim. Morgan Stanley stated that, “2.3 million Americans live more than one mile away from a grocery store and do not own a car.” And in regards to Whole Foods prices, “15% higher than those of rival grocery stores''. There simply is an access problem with data to back it up that Mackey simply chose to dismiss. Kant's theory of truth applies well to this situation as Makceys dismal of fact and the opinion of the medical society is unethical as it violates the theory of lying which could never be universal law.  

Virtue Theory:

When analyzing a situation a Virtue Theorist places utmost emphasis on the means instead of the ends.  The outcome simply doesn't matter. Strong emphasis is placed on a group or individuals character and how their actions reflect it. Mackey showed poor character in the statements that he made regarding obesity.

“Act so as to embody a variety of virtuous or good character traits and so as to avoid vicious or bad character traits” (Salazar 22). There are a few important character traits that Mackey violated. Two being Empathy and Gratitude. Mackey showed no empathy towards people with genetic predisposition to obesity and impoverished living conditions. While it is true that poor decisions can and will lead to being unhealthy, it is also true that genetics play a large role in obesity. Mackey lacked empathy towards people with genetic conditions such as diabetes that may make them obese. People in poverty also can simply not afford to eat a clean and healthy diet as Mackeys implies they must. Eating clean is not cheap, and people living paycheck to paycheck have to allocate their money to more important things. 

Another important trait in judging one's character is Gratitude. From the statements he gave, it is hard to identify Mackey as having any gratitude or being gracious in the slightest. He is the CEO of the world's largest health food supermarket and was recently bought out by the largest company the world has ever known. It is evident by his statements that he thinks he's better than the people he is talking down to giving a good indication of his overall character. 


An individualist would deem Mackey's statements to be a failure. The theory of Individualism can be understood through the works of Adam Smith and Milton Freidman. Adam Smith believed in the theory of Individualism and the theory of the Invisible Hand. Essentially meaning that when people make decisions that benefit their own good will it will also be beneficial for society as a whole. He added that in order for this to work, “It must be set against a backdrop of morality” (Salazar 8). Meaning that in order for society to gain from individual actions, Individuals must be motivated by good will. Friedman argued that a business only goal was to maximize profit within the rules of the law. To Friedman, nothing was off limits as long as maximizing profits was goal number one and staying within the law was the backdrop. 

Adam Smith would take issue with Mackey's motivation. Smith also stated, “Humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit are the qualities most useful to others.” Mackey in particular lacked humanity and overall public spirit in his interview. He called out millions of people with disease and pinned them for “poor judgement and bad decisions”. When analyzing from Friedman's theory, you only question whether an individual looked to maximize profit. In this case the goal was most definitely not to maximize profit as Mackey's statement would have been much different if it was. If profit was the main goal, Makcey would have outlined a plan to get obese people into Whole Foods to help them lead a healthier life. Both sub theories of Individualism would deem Mackey's actions unethical as they did not try to maximize profit and they were carried out with intentions of goodwill. 

Justified Ethics Evaluation:

In my opinion, John Mackey's statements were not only unethical but extremely unprofessional. Makcey could have avoided the situation all together with minimal thought and effort. Not only did he face severe backlash, but also gave the Whole Foods brand and its owner Amazon bad publicity. In his position, Mackey could have voiced his concern for the ever growing problem of obesity, and then given people a plan of action. Given his credibility, he could have easily given people a simple plan of action to kickstart their journey to living a healthy lifestyle. What he chose to do instead provided no value to himself or anyone following. 

 It will be tough for Mackey to offer any rebuttals to the critics he was met with. This is simply due to the fact that he ignored fact and the general public opinion and chose to speak out of his own self interest. As I stated, Obesity is simply not a choice but a disease that must be met with treatment. Mackey's ignorance of this fact will make it almost impossible for him to challenge any of his critics. His claims also contradict data. Whole Foods prices are priced significantly higher than those of other stores, indicating that there is an access problem. 

Most CEO’s placed in Mackeys position would have chosen to act differently. They would have acted in a respectable manner that would help to strengthen their own personal image as well as the image of their brand. It should be clear to you that John Mackey acted unethically. His comments not only provided no value to himself but the nation as a whole. 

Action Plan:

It is hard to blatantly say that Whole Foods and its CEO is facing a crisis. This is in part due to the nature of the controversy. In this case, there is no possibility of a lawsuit or further action. The only followup from the interview has just been statements from the public stating their rebuttals to Mackey's claims. While it is too early to tell, Mackey’s comments may have little to no effect on the success and image of Whole Foods. Despite this, it would still be in John Mackesy best interest to make some changes to his personal values as well as the company’s.

As stated directly from the Whole Foods website under their Mission and Values tab, “Out purpose is to nourish people and the planet. We’re a purpose driven company that aims to set the standards of excellence for food retailers. Quality is a state of mind at Whole Foods Market.” While stated as their motto, their CEO does not uphold this value. A few simple changes to his values would establish his values consistent with that of the companys. My recommendation to him would be to look at the positive or negative impact that his statements have and whether they bring value to the people that hear them. As previously stated in regards to Utilitarianism, his comments provide no value and don't attempt to maximize the good that he could do. If I were in his position, I would have given my best effort to help people who struggle with obesity to help fight it. Mackey should provide people with a three step action plan to help get them started, here would be my recommendation;

  • Step 1: Outline why obesity is an ever growing issue and how it is detrimental to your health and your future. As a part of step one, provide factual evidence as to why you should get healthy/lose weight (Life expectancy, Mood Enhancement, etc.)

  • Step 2: Give people an example workout plan (Varying experience levels), and sample nutrition plan outline what foods to stay away from when losing weight (Carbs/ Artificial Sugars/ Processed foods). 

  • Step 3: Provide incentive for people to get started. Run special promotions; Get 25% off your first purchase when you sign up for a Whole Foods membership.

It is my recommendation that Mackey makes a plan or one similar available to the public sooner rather than later. This is what should have been done in the first place, but it would still be in his best interest to do it now. Making something like this available to the public would align Mackey’s personal values with the company’s and exhibit ethical behavior according to all four major ethical theories. 


“Mission & Values.” Mission and Values | Whole Foods Market,

Morris, Seren. “Outrage as Whole Foods CEO Says Ignorance and Poor Choices Cause Obesity.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 25 Sept. 2020,

Pesce, Nicole Lyn. “Whole Foods Founder Blames Obesity Crisis on 'Ignorance,' Not Food Prices- 'We've Opened Stores in Poor Areas'.” Market Watch , 24 Sept. 2020, Navirus-worse-2020-09-24.

Rosen, Howard. “Is Obesity A Disease or A Behavior Abnormality? Did the AMA Get It Right?” Missouri Medicine, Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association, 2014,

“Whole Foods CEO: Poverty + Ignorance = Obesity.” ConscienHealth, 28 Sept. 2020,

Writer, Contributing. “WEIGHT RESPONSIBILITY: Obesity Is a Choice, Not a Disability.” The Mindful Word, 28 Mar. 2019, 

DesJardins, Joseph. An Introduction to Business Ethics. New York City: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc, 2014.

Salazar, Heather. The Business Ethics Case Manual. n.d.

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