There's a certain cost-benefit analysis that goes into shopping at Whole Foods, the natural-foods grocer that caters to high-end tastes and high-end budgets.
On the cost side, you know you're going to pay through the nose, and you're probably going to burn more $4-a-gallon gas than you would to get to the nearest Market Basket or Shaw's.
On the benefit side, you're getting natural food. Meat from animals that were raised humanely and fed a non-toxic diet. Fruits and vegetables not covered with a thick coat of insecticide. Cereal, bread and other staples with lists of ingredients you can understand without a degree in organic chemistry. At least that's the idea.
So when it turns out that the hamburger you bought for twice what your neighbour spent came from an industrial meat-processing plant that's been in trouble with the government for years, according to the Washington Post, well, you're entitled to feel just a bit let down, you know?
But that's what we learned a few days ago, when Whole Foods recalled ground beef sold the previous two months in 23 states, plus Canada and Washington DC, because of an outbreak of E coli. The meat was traced to a plant in Omaha called Nebraska Beef Ltd, which, according to the Post, has a history of not being all that particular about faeces on carcasses, or about keeping spinal cords and heads (linked to mad-cow disease) out of the mix.
My favorite part of the Post article comes near the end, where we learn that folks who live near the plant have long complained about manure in the streets and workers walking into the local market "covered in cow splatter". Yum!
The beef recall is just the latest development in what's been a tough year for Whole Foods. It started last summer, when the founder and chief executive, John Mackey, was discovered to have been posting comments online under an assumed identity, puffing Whole Foods (and himself) and running down Wild Oats, the smaller competitor he was trying to buy.
The Wild Oats acquisition was allowed to go ahead, but the Federal Trade Commission is still investigating on anti-competitive grounds. Whole Foods' stock price closed on Monday at $19.73 a share, down from a 52-week high of $53.65. It's called a halt to its dividend. And the chain suddenly finds itself squeezed by two related trends.
The first is economic. Paying more than you would at a typical supermarket may seem smart in good times. In bad times, though, that's a harder case to make. The benefits of eating all-natural are abstract (Cancer at 80 instead of 70? Pigs and chickens that suffer less?); the costs are immediate. That's why Whole Foods, according to the New York Times, recently launched a campaign to convince shoppers that its prices aren't as high as you might think.
The second trend has been the rise of the local food movement. These days socially conscious consumers seek out food that's been locally grown and raised. The impetus for this is partly economic, as rising transportation costs make it less sensible than it used to be to import food from New Zealand or Argentina - or California, for that matter.
But the larger motivating force is environmental: the closer to home your food is grown, the smaller your carbon footprint. (Granted, this might seem like a not-so-fun idea if you live in a place where it means you'll spend the winter eating turnips, potatoes and road kill.)
Trouble is, Whole Foods built its reputation by positioning itself firmly in the mainstream of globalisation, selling products from around the country and around the world. To its credit, the company is now stressing its commitment to local food. But you're more likely to find committed localvores at farmers' markets than at Whole Foods.
Whole Foods' woes with contaminated beef show how difficult it can be even for a quality-conscious company to keep track of every detail. The meat was from Coleman Natural, a reputable dealer. Except that it wasn't - Coleman sold the beef segment of its business in April to Meyer Natural Angus, which will be allowed to use the Coleman name for a year. Meyer's website espouses a commitment to all the right values, but it contracted with Nebraska Beef to process its meat. And so it goes.
The problem is that Whole Foods failed to keep its implicit contract with its customers: give us all your money, and we'll guarantee that you won't get stuck with hamburger from cows whose carcasses are covered with faeces, slaughtered by workers who walk the streets of Omaha covered with "cow splatter".
That's not really asking too much. Is it?
Longtime media critic Dan Kennedy teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and blogs at Media Nation.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008