Big poultry and meat producers have absorbed many of the organic grocer’s practices—and become its suppliers.
Whole Foods Market Inc. doesn’t just sell chickens. It sells shoppers on the idea of chickens raised and treated better than prevailing standards: no antibiotics, no hormones, no cages. Not the sort of chicken you can get anywhere.
But thanks in no small part to a food-quality revolution that Whole Foods helped cultivate over the past decade, standards for much of the poultry sold at American supermarkets are shifting. The gulf has narrowed—and sometimes has even closed—between what’s sold at Whole Foods and what’s produced by industrial food giants such as Perdue Farms Inc. and sold at lower-cost supermarkets.
Now that Amazon.com Inc. has moved to acquire Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, it remains to be seen what the online-shopping giant will do with the grocery chain that arguably did more than any business to bring the fussy foodie focus on provenance into the mainstream. The more widespread availability of products meeting Whole Foods standards can even be seen as part of what made the company vulnerable to a takeover bid.
The biggest difference between the store-brand chickens at Whole Foods and what’s for sale at another supermarket is, in many cases, the sticker price itself.A shopper on a recent visit could pay $2.49 per pound for antibiotic-free thighs with a Whole Foods label touting “no added solutions or injections.” Perdue’s Harvestland-branded poultry—no antibiotics, air-chilled—cost just $1.99 per pound at an unremarkable Key Food supermarket just a few blocks away. The similarities don’t stop there: In this case, the chicken under the 365 Everyday Value store-brand label at Whole Foods was raised by a Perdue farmer and slaughtered in the same Perdue plant as its Harvestland cousin, although a shopper likely wouldn’t be aware of that fact.
Not all 365-branded chicken comes from Perdue, and aside from an establishment number printed on the package, there is no way to determine where a product originated. Yet the price disparity for poultry of nearly indistinguishable origins can be pronounced. A whole bird under the 365 store brand at the same Whole Foods: $4.09 per pound. At Key Food, the Perdue Harvestland whole chicken: $1.99 per pound. (The quirks of grocery pricing can lead to unexpected results: Whole Foods store-brand drumsticks produced by Perdue rang up at 20 cents less per pound than Perdue’s Harvestland version.)
“What used to be more unique” to natural food retailers “has now become really par for the course, certainly among your larger chains and your progressive grocers,” says David Sprinkle, researcher director at Packaged Facts, a market-research firm. “When other chains, including bigger chains, started doing natural and organic, well, then suddenly Whole Foods was competing with Kroger, Wegmans, Costco.”