Whole Foods Controversy: Targeting Ramadan

Whole Foods direct marketing at Muslims during Ramadan then take it back

ByABC News
August 9, 2011, 5:45 PM

Aug. 9, 2011 -- The national grocery chain Whole Foods is in the middle of a whole lot of controversy for directing a marketing campaign at Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan -- and then taking it back.

On July 27, food writer Yvonne Mafei wrote about celebrating Ramadan on the Whole Foods company blog, the Whole Story.

"Ramadan is fast approaching, and I'm getting my kitchen ready for a month of celebration with my family and community," Mafei wrote. "In case you're not familiar with Ramadan, it is an incredibly important holy month for Muslims. For us, it is a time of reflection -- a time to develop compassion for those who live with hunger and thirst as a way of life, and to do something to help them."

The post was accompanied by a promotion announcing a gift card giveaway during the Muslim holy month and directed customers to try a new line of halal-certified products called Saffron Road.

For a socially conscious company that calls itself "mission driven," offering up a few menu choices and gift cards for an important Muslim holiday seemed like a no-brainer.

The post -- and an accompanying date recipe -- generated enthusiastic comments, such as, "This is great. Finally a major retailer has recognized its Muslim customers" and "Whole Foods your support of Ramadan is very much appreciated."

But within days anti-Muslim bloggers like Debbie Schlussel, made it clear that they did not appreciate a major national retail chain embracing the Muslim holy month and accused the company of "Islamo-pandering" and being a "shill for jihadist interests."

It all might have ended there if it weren't for an internal Whole Foods email obtained by the Houston Press that suggested that after the negative reaction from conservatives, some Whole Foods stores would now downplay any mention of Ramadan.

The email read in part, "It is probably best that we don't specifically call out or 'promote' Ramadan ... We should not highlight Ramadan in signage in our stores as that could be considered 'Celebrating or promoting' Ramadan."

In a statement to ABCNews.com, Whole Foods indicated that the email may have been misunderstood.

"Whole Foods Market is NOT canceling our current halal promotion, which is centered around the timeframe of Ramadan..." but the statement went on to say, "We have 12 different operating regions and one region reacted by sending out directions to promote Halal and not specifically Ramadan after some online negative comments."

But that statement is not likely to stem the tide of negativity being directed at Whole Foods Market, because now comments are pouring in from the other side -- customers angry that the socially conscious grocer seemed to capitulate so quickly to anti-Muslim sentiments.

One commenter named Bunnie Watson wrote on the Whole Foods blog: "Just disappointed to hear that Whole Foods has capitulated to a vocal minority that does not believe in the freedom to observe non-Christian religious practices in America."