Whole Foods Talks Sewer Sludge

Crisis communication from the health-centric grocery chain in response to biosolids controversy

We know more about the food on grocery shelves today than ever before because instead of buying whatever produce or meat is in front of them, consumers are asking questions and demanding answers.

The most recent stomach-turning fact brought to light by this attitude is the use of biosolids, aka “sewage sludge” – a literal mixture of everything dumped down the drain in homes and businesses – as fertilizer for food crops. We learned about that first via a report from the Food Rights Network, published Dec. 18, that took Whole Foods to task for making it difficult for customers to discover whether their food was, in fact, grown in sewage sludge or not.  There was not, initially, any response available online from Whole Foods.

We sent Whole Foods a message on the 19th asking for comment and shortly after received the following response, which the Whole Foods’ media relations department says is being used to reply to customers who ask about the biosolids issue:

Thank you for writing to Whole Foods Market with your concerns about produce grown using biosolids as fertilizer. As you may know, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies across the country heavily regulate both the production and use of biosolids as fertilizer. According to the EPA, biosolids are used on less than one percent of the nation’s agricultural land. Currently, growers are not required by law to disclose whether they are using biosolids, but Whole Foods Market is looking into ways of providing customers with more information about produce growing methods than is currently available.

Consumers who want to avoid produce grown with biosolids can turn to organic produce, since biosolids are prohibited from organic food production by the National Organic Program. A good place to learn more about the current state of biosolids in the US is at the EPA website: https://www.epa.gov/biosolids

Not a bad response overall, but Whole Foods quite noticeably left out two of what BCM president Jonathan Bernstein calls “The Five Tenets of Crisis Communications,” — being prompt and expressing compassion.

The company’s same-day respond to US was prompt, but in the 24 hours since the Food Rights Network published its report, Whole Foods suffered reputation damage that could have been further minimized if they had a statement already prepared on this entirely predictable issue.

Additionally, discovering that your food may have been grown in a bath of unsavory substances that includes industrial solvents and leftover prescription medicine is certain to cause a little fear and acknowledging that compassionately would have bumped up the effectiveness of Whole Food’s response.

It’s entirely possible for incomplete or inappropriate crisis communications to turn an otherwise-survivable crisis into an ugly situation. Take care when communicating in crisis, and keep the Five Tenets in mind.

The BCM Blogging Team