Mr. Organic


The gatekeeper of quality at the nation’s premier organic grocer

“What I love about what I do now is that it melds my technical background, my science dork self with my immense passion for what we eat and how we grow it,” says Joe Dickson, all smiles over coffee one afternoon in the bustling main dining area of Whole Foods Market ’s global headquarters in downtown Austin.

Dickson, who started working for the nation’s first certified- organic grocery store as a receptionist in its New England regional office in Boston during the summer months of college, is now the food, organic and environmental quality standards coordinator for the company. The summer position morphed in to a marketing internship, which, in turn, led to what he thought would be a temporary marketing gig. He was primarily working in public relations and marketing, but he always harbored a desire to reach the core of the business.

After applying for the job he currently holds in early 2004 and being interviewed via videoconference, Dickson packed up his belongings and moved to Austin in march of that year, having never set foot in Texas, nor lived outside of the northeast. He describes it as the riskiest decision of his life, albeit one that clearly paid off. His enthusiasm for this city and for his work at Whole Foods Market is evident not only in how he describes his life here, but also in his personality: Quite simply, he’s exceedingly comfortable in his own skin.

“If you had told my senior-in-college self that in 10 years I’d be working at the global headquarters of a big company in Texas, I would’ve said, ‘You’ve gotta be crazy,’” says Dickson, laughing at the trajectory his life has taken since graduating from New York’s Vassar College with a degree in cognitive neuroscience.

His group sets the quality standards for the products sold in each of Whole Foods’ 270-plus stores.

“We’ve built our company as the natural foods store,” Dickson says, “a place to shop without the artificial preservatives and colors.”

Shopping at Whole Foods Market is arguably as much a lifestyle choice – with political and environmental implications – as it is simply a matter of putting food on the table. Dickson helps guide the standards and principles that guide what qualifies as natural or organic within the store, what claims various products can make, what stands the company takes on genetically modified organisms, and the list goes on.

“I think our customers imagine, rightly so, that when they walk into the store, they’re in a safe space,” he says, “that someone else has done the research for them.”

1-5That someone is often Dickson, who spends the majority of his time conducting wide-ranging, in-depth research in to the minutiae of products and their ingredients, such as what a new sweetener is composed of and how it is produced. Another huge part of his work revolves around safeguarding the usage of the term “organic.” for the uninitiated, organic is a term that refers to food that is grown, raised and processed without toxic or persistent pesticides and strictly limited additives. As the nation’s first certified organic grocer, Whole Foods Market takes this word very seriously. Dickson enforces the usage of that designation to make sure consumers understand exactly what they’re getting at all times, to verify that food is being merchandised and talked about correctly and honestly, and to come up with programs and operating processes to assist all the company’s 50,000 team members in upholding the standards.

“We’re empowering everyone in the company who interacts with customers to provide good information and make good decisions,” Dickson says, noting that the company fought hard for a federal definition of organic agriculture because there were state-to-state inconsistencies and fraud prior to the enactment of uniform national organic standards in 2002. “Our feeling is that the term ‘organic’ is so precious.”

Besides spending a large amount of time inside the company’s stores policing the claims of labels and keeping track of product trends and what’s being sold, he also meets frequently with team members to assist with training and education regarding organic standards. Of course, for any given ingredient, there will be a gargantuan amount of scientific and medical research, and published information, much of it dense, some of it conflicting. Dickson reads an inordinate number of scientific journals, food- science textbooks and he also looks to regulatory bodies in the rest of the world for guidance.

Prior to 2002, states had their own definitions of what organic means. In 1990, led by the efforts of Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. This legislation created the skeleton for what would become America’s national standards. The National Organic Standards board, which grew out of that legislation and has existed since 1993, votes on each individual substance in terms of what is allowed or banned in organic crop production. The board is very balanced, composed of stakeholders, including growers, food processors, environmentalists, a consumer representative and a retail representative. Dickson was chosen to serve a five-year term as the retail representative beginning this January. It’s a huge honor for him, and for the company whose mission he furthers, and his excitement about the unfolding possibilities in organic agriculture is palpable.

Dickson is extremely optimistic about the likely progress of organic agriculture in the era of Obama, noting that the current administration is a lot more supportive of organic and sustain- able agriculture than the previous one. In the first days of the new administration, in fact, tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, appointed Kathleen Merrigan to be the deputy secretary of agriculture.

“She is one of the leading advocates of organic agriculture in the country,” Dickson says.

The NOSB, which meets two or three times a year for a few days, listens to public comment and takes a lot of input from farmers and growers to make sure their concerns are incorporated in to any new regulations.

During a visit to Dickson’s office, which is tucked away in a corner of the vast headquarters and offering a stunning view of Austin’s evolving skyline, he explains why a collection of shampoos, conditioners and hand soaps are lined up on his desk. The jurisdiction of the United States department of Agriculture regarding personal-care products is currently unclear and undefined. The position of Whole Foods Market, according to Dickson, is that if you’re a shopper and you walk from the produce department to the body-care section, the definition of organic should not be very different.

“Right now, anyone can make an organic claim about a personal-care product,” Dickson says, picking up a container of shampoo and reading off the label, which claims it’s from 70-percent organic ingredients. “If that was food, it would not qualify as organic.”

Dickson, a self-described omnivore and all-around ultra-foodie, has always focused on trying to make his diet as plant-based as possible; when he does eat meat, it’s typically the grass-fed, all- natural and hormone-free version offered at his store. Fittingly, Whole Foods Market was also where Dickson met
 his partner of more than two years. While waiting in line 
for coffee one day, Dickson met John Livingston, who, it 
turns out, is also very in to food.

“We were both getting breakfast here almost every day,” Dickson says. “I apparently walked right by him a few times before I noticed his smile.”

The couple’s first meal together was over fish tacos in the sit-down dining area of the seafood department of Whole Foods Market.

“John met me for lunch to lend me some comic books he thought I’d enjoy: ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Planetary.’ I’d never been a comic book person and was surprised to learn that there were comics out there that were really interesting, engaging, beautiful and intended for grown- ups.”

A huge part of the couple’s dynamic centers around food, whether it means frequently cooking fabulous meals together or hosting dinner parties for their friends, or tinkering with new and exotic recipes.

“We have a resolution this winter to eat out less,” Dickson says, noting that he bought Livingston a pasta machine for his birthday, and it’s gotten a lot of use. Indeed, they’ve been experimenting with pasta in a range of ways, changing all of the variables that can impact its taste, from the type of flour and the temperature of the dough to different mixing techniques. A trip to Boston in November netted them a suitcase loaded with obscure Italian semolina flours and some hard cheeses.

“One of the reasons we get along so well in the kitchen is that we both tend to approach serious, complicated dishes with the playful seriousness of a kid with a chemistry set,” Dickson says. “Some of our best days have started at the farmers market and ended with a giant pot of something mind-blowing.”

A recent memorable pasta experience revolved around a scrumptious-sounding batch of experimental ravioli, stuffed with a creamy roasted pumpkin filling and topped with fried sage. the couple shared it with a small group of close friends for Sunday night dinner.

“I like the ritual of finishing out the weekend and pre- paring for the week ahead with a really good Sunday dinner,” Dickson says.

Livingston’s gratitude is clear.

“Joe knows that I can be a little compulsive about cooking and the pasta machine was an excellent gift,” he says. “I’ve always known that good ingredients make good food, but now I get to grocery shop with a food scientist and quality expert. We spend a lot of time together finding and preparing the best foods. During the spring and summer we go to the farmer’s market every weekend. We spend lots of time together gathering ingredients and cooking. It’s really sweet.”

All of this food fraternizing, of course, begs the question: do they ever disagree about where or what to eat? Besides the obvious where-to-eat debate, Dickson says he eats less meat than Livingston. Otherwise, the couple sees eye to eye about what they should eat: generally a diet that includes organic, local food, meat from well-treated animals and what tastes good.

Dickson’s pride in the company and the stands he takes regarding healthy eating is evident. In the coming year, Whole Foods Market will continue to emphasize healthy eating choices and to educate consumers about the relationship between their health and what they choose to eat. The company, and Dickson specifically, aims to make a difference in the ongoing fight against the diseases that are directly impacted by our diets.

He also shoots down one of the negative stereotypes that exists about his company.

“One misperception floating out there is that everything here is so expensive,” Dickson says. “If you focus on fresh produce and the 365 label, a lot of the pricing is competitive to a conventional grocery store.”

Even so, food that is more healthy and less processed can sometimes be more expensive. Organic farming still only comprises 2 or 3 percent of U.S. agriculture right now, meaning that all of the usual economies of scale apply. As more consumers learn about the benefits of organic food and adapt it in their own lives, the economies of scale will shift and the food will become more afford- able as time passes.

For a relatively small company, Whole Foods Market can certainly spark conversations, and in some cases, arguments. Its explosive growth (it’s only been open since 1980) has allowed it to preach the organic gospel to a wider range of people across the country.

“We still have a ways to go before we’re in every city,” Dickson says. “In terms of sales, Wal-Mart is about 50 times as big as we are.”

The path to becoming the country’s first national retailer to be certified organic wasn’t easy. In fact, it was costly, time-consuming and tedious. These exacting standards require that everyone who handles or produces organic food must be certified by a third- party certifier. Because organic is such a big part of Whole Foods Market , they wanted to be fully certified.

Annually, inspectors visit all the stores, checking to see what products are being bought, whether they’re being labeled and handled correctly, and verifying that they aren’t coming into contact with conventional products.

“We’re actually showing our customers,” Dickson says, “that we take organic so seriously that we invite a third party in to certify that what we’re selling as organic meets the standards.”