Whole Foods denies rumor of boycott of Israeli products [UPDATE]

This story was originally posted on Aug. 25. Update is below.

For about a week, a rumor that the Whole Foods Market chain is boycotting Israeli products has been circulating in emails and on the blogosphere.  On Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson for Whole Foods said that the rumor is completely false.

It’s “definitely not true,” company spokesperson Libba Letton said in a phone interview. “We have products from Israel; we have tons of kosher products.”
The company’s customer service team has received “at least a couple hundred” phone calls from people – many of them Jewish – asking whether the rumor is true, Letton said.

“For every person that calls us, there are nine more who don’t and just believe what they read, and it’s been frustrating,” she said.

Letton said she believes the rumor started with a blogpost by conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel late last month. On July 29, Schlussel wrote on her blog, DebbieSchlussel.com, that she had “received many reports from Whole Foods customers that Israeli olive oil and other products had been removed from the shelves of many Whole Foods.”

Letton firmly disputed Schlussel’s claim. “Some national brands you’ll find in our stores include Aviv, Yehuda, and Avvio,” she wrote The Journal in an email. “We also carry thousands of kosher items, as well as hundreds of kosher-for-Passover products.” Schlussel could not be reached for comment.

[UPDATE AUG. 26, 6:10 pm]

Despite Whole Foods’ statements that the company is not boycotting Israeli products, Schlussel affirms that her claim is “100 percent true.”

“They are lying about saying they’re not boycotting Israel,” she said.

Based on feedback from readers of her blog and her own observations of Whole Foods stores in the Detroit area, where she is based, Schlussel believes the grocery chain is engaging in a strategic campaign to gradually remove the most popular Israeli products, including Israeli olive oil, from store shelves.

“It’s not just a political statement. It’s pandering to a group of people who they think will be their future customers, which is Muslims,” Schlussel said. “And they know that the type of Jews who shop at Whole Foods are liberal and have no principals. They don’t care about Israel … I’m probably one of the few Jews who stopped shopping there.”

Letton dismissed Schlussel’s claim.

“I would say that is completely unfounded, and completely ridiculous,” she said. “The bottom line is that we don’t discriminate on country of origin.”

Letton said stores will pull a product from shelves if it isn’t selling. “I’m speculating that may be the reason, if she witnessed a trend like that,” she said.

The boycott controversy started after Schlussel, in a blog post dated July 29, 2011, attacked Whole Foods for holding a Ramadan marketing campaign. In the post, Schlussel said that Whole Foods has decided to carry Palestinian olive oil instead of Israeli olive oil, which led to the rumors that Whole Foods is boycotting Israeli products.

This isn’t the first dispute between Whole Foods and Schlussel. In April 2009, Schlussel blogged that Canaan Fair Trade olive oil, a Palestinian olive oil that is made in the West Bank and carried at Whole Foods stores, support terrorist causes. Letton denied this claim as well.

Today, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement in support of Whole Foods, adding that the company said some of its buyers were on a trip to Israel when the rumor about its supposed anti-Israel stance began circulating online.

“Whole Foods Market has made it unequivocally clear that it has not and will not engage in boycotts against the state of Israel,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in the statement. “In fact, they continue to carry a number of Israeli products, and have assured us that they do so with pride.”