The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) carries a big public interest stick.
It can mobilize the 850,000 people in its network to pressure corporations and governments.
The goal – clean, safe, organic foods and products for America.
One way that OCA raises money – it charges for ads on the group’s popular web site – organicconsumers.org.
Two companies had purchased logo space on the OCA web site – Organic Valley and Nature’s Path.
Until last year.
That’s when the groups dropped their sponsorship.
Under pressure from Whole Foods Market and United Natural Foods – the two companies that dominate the organics market in the United States.
That’s according to OCA’s national director Ronnie Cummins.
“National sponsors like Organic Valley and Nature’s Path have been threatened by Whole Foods and United Natural Foods that if they continue to support the Organic Consumers Association they will suffer repercussions in the marketplace,” Cummins told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.
“We had to take down those logos,” Cummins said. “We understand. We don’t want a company to go bankrupt simply because they support the right thing.” Cummins said high ranking executives at the Organic Valley and Nature’s Path told him about the threats – but asked that he not disclose their names.
“Whole Foods is very careful,” Cummins said. “Whole Foods has threatened to sue us a number of times. But they are very careful when they do this sort of arm twisting and intimidation to not leave any evidence of it. This was all verbally committed over the phone or in person.”
The executives from Nature’s Path and Organic Valley “apologized to us and made me promise not to use their names,” Cummins said.
“We are trying to protect these companies and these individuals from the fallout from Whole Foods and United Natural Foods,” Cummins said.
Cummins estimates that OCA lost a total of $40,000 in projected ad revenue as a result of the move.
But he understands that Organic Valley and Nature’s Path can’t afford to offend Whole Foods and United Natural Foods – the main distributor of organic foods in the United States.
“Whole Foods sells $10 billion out of the $75 billion sold a year for the industry,” Cummins said. “So for most companies it’s at least 15 percent, but often up to 25 percent of their total sales. And it’s not just Whole Foods. United Natural Foods was in on it to.”
If they were cut off by those two, they would be driven out of business?
“You would go bankrupt immediately,” Cummins said. “We call Whole Foods and United Natural Foods the organic mafia. And it really is like that. There is tremendous fear in the industry to say anything critical of Whole Foods and United Natural Foods.”
When did Whole Foods and United Natural Foods begin pressuring OCA?
“It has happened over the past twelve months as we stepped up this campaign to expose the myth of natural foods,” Cummins said. “And at first, Whole Foods and United Natural Foods thought they could ignore the campaign. But then they noticed we had an alliance with the United Farmworkers and with the Teamsters.” Cummins wants Whole Foods and United Natural Foods to sign a Food Sustainability Pledge.
“That requires them to stop marketing conventional chemical foods as natural,” Cummins said. “And to sell only foods in their store that are certified organic or are in transition to organics. And it requires them to recognize fair trade principles – not just overseas, but in the domestic supply line.”
Whole Foods spokesperson Libby Letton said that Whole Foods did not pressure the two companies to pull the ads.
“For the OCA to continue to mislead consumers about Whole Foods Market and UNFI is alarming and disheartening,” Letton said. “When the OCA launched an untrue campaign against us last year, we did contact our stakeholders, including our suppliers, Team Members, and shoppers, because we wanted to clear up the misinformation that was being spread by the OCA’s campaign. We find it troubling that while the OCA accuses us of pressuring our suppliers against them, they openly call on Whole Foods Market to ‘put the pressure on’ suppliers to transition to organic.”
“Meanwhile, the truth is that Whole Foods Market continues to champion organics more than ever. We take enormous pride in working with hard-working and ethical organic farmers and food producers to offer our shoppers the very best organic products on the planet,” Letton said.
United Natural Foods could not be reached for comment.
[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Ronnie Cummins, see 24 Corporate Crime Reporter 12(12), March 22, 2010, print edition only.]