Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief
Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief

Whole Foods stirred some sludge in late 2013 when it announced it would no longer accept fresh produce grown on soil amended with biosolids, or human feces, from municipal sewage plants.

Marketing makes us do and say odd things, I suppose. For the planet, it seems using biosolids (human excrement and other materials flushed from household drainpipes) to fertilize fields is an artful solution to a large problem.

The announcement didn’t cost Whole Foods anything, since none of the company’s growers use biosolids on their fields.

Well, no one does. Biosolids in the U.S. are applied not to produce but to animal feed crops and landscapes.

However, Whole Foods seems to have been able to ensure the loyalty of its clientele by rousing its subconscious fears of defecation and toilet flushing.

It is pretty easy to invoke the ick factor. Certainly some activists are consciously and loudly beating the drum for Whole Foods, thanking them for taking such a bold move.

Whole Foods, your hometown, Austin, Texas, has capacity to process 150 million gallons of wastewater per day.

That is diddly-squat compared to New York City, which reports that its wastewater treatment plants process 1.4 billion gallons of wastewater daily.

Critics worry about prescription drugs from people and dangerous other substances that get flushed by people and companies. They express suspicion about government bureaucrats that have been bought off by corporations.

The data the government produces showing dangerous stuff going down our drains is infinitessimal as a percentage is considered hogwash and not to be trusted.

The funny thing about “hogwash,” by the way, is that while human excrement can’t be processed to kill pathogens and spread on fields growing organic produce for Whole Foods, pig poop can be piled high and deep.

Manure’s organic, if it comes from pigs or cattle or chickens.

NPR addressed the issue in mid-January in a piece titled “Whole Foods Bans Produce Grown with Sludge. But Who Wins?” The transcript is worth a read.

The Center for Media and Democracy claims to have pushed Whole Foods to make the announcement, which the center calls a victory for consumers.

They prefer to call biosolids “sewage sludge,” as do most critics. Their website has a funny image of a disgusted little boy’s face of 1950s vintage looking at what presumably is a pile of human excrement.

“This food may have been grown in sewage sludge,” it reads.


Others piling on the bandwagon get to use phrases like “The Sludge Hits The Fan” and other scatological references.

The biosolids announcement from Whole Foods was part of an announcement in the fall that by next fall the chain plans to launch a rating system for produce and flowers sold in its stores to help shoppers make more informed purchases based on farmworker welfare, pollinator protection, water conservation, soil health, ecosystems, biodiversity, waste and recycling, energy and climate.

Somehow, all that is going to be distilled to a rating of good, better and best.

With such a list corners will have to be cut and compromises made to force every product into this tidy three-tiered system. The larger question of what to do with biosolids is not a worthy consideration.

Be suspicious of the scientists who say it is safe. Everyone seems to believe scientists to be suspicious characters.

To a certain extent, it seems Whole Foods builds its business by building on biases and fears to scare people to its products. That set of fears is dressed in nice, clean stores with smart decor, specialty items and tasty carryout items.

It is a successful business model.

Well, that sounds like I am banging on Whole Foods something fierce. That is not really fair. Perhaps it’s because Whole Foods brings up the social issues that I was ticked off by their little biosolids storm.

I suppose people’s fears push them to buy lots of what we sell.

Eat cauliflower or risk dying of a heart attack. Blueberries or cancer: your choice. Maybe we should study Whole Foods for marketing tips.

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