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Health Care Uproar Swallows Whole Foods

Whole Foods has taken pains to distance itself from founder and CEO John Mackey, but it may be too late.

The outspoken chief executive is so much the face of the popular natural food chain that when his health care column was published last week with the headline “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare,” some of his customers freaked.

The op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal slammed President Obama’s health care plans and offered Mackey’s own market-based ideas. It caused an uproar – some have even said they’ll boycott the store.

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Hugh Sparks of Austin, Texas, says he won’t be shopping at the store “as long as this person is in charge at Whole Foods and he maintains his opposition to appropriate health care payment.”

“If this is their corporate philosophy, I cannot support that,” Sparks says. “There are other places to get the products that I want to buy.”

In Whole Foods’ gleaming flagship store in central Austin, the aisles certainly don’t appear emptier. Shoppers heft organic muskmelons, inspect hydroponic watercress, fondle luscious green mangoes and make their way to the checkout counter.

At a table outside the store, Chris and Dwayne Pulsifer slurp fruit smoothies while savoring Mackey’s bold position on health care. “I wish the whole country would oppose it,” Dwayne says. “And I think that you find now, at least what we hear, maybe not on NPR or Fox News, you hear that the majority of people are against it, but you have Obama sitting there trying to achieve something that people don’t want.”

In his article, Mackey writes, “the last thing the country needs is a complete government takeover of the health-care system” that would “create hundreds of billions of dollars in new unfunded deficits.” He proposes, instead, that government free health insurance companies to be more competitive, enact tort reform to end malpractice lawsuits, and revise tax laws to favor employer-provided insurance.

The Whole Foods chief executive is a prolific commentator. Earlier this decade, Mackey posted messages on a Yahoo chat forum under an alias in which he pumped up Whole Foods and trashed then-competitor Wild Oats.

This time, it’s Mackey who is the target in chat rooms throughout the Internet.

By midday Wednesday, the “Boycott Whole Foods” page on Facebook had more than 16,000 members. And there are more than 12,000 posts on Whole Foods’ own discussion forum ranging from “Bravo, Mr. Mackey!” to “Mackey is an abomination!”

A Whole Foods representative says the company, with 265 stores in North America and the U.K., is concerned about the boycott and emphasizes that the opinions on health care are Mackey’s, not the corporation’s.

Mackey himself is reportedly on vacation hiking, and unavailable for comment.