Expect higher prices — it's natural

Alex Markels

KAI RYSSDAL: There's a pretty standard thing that happens when a big corporate merger's announced. Shares in the company being bought usually rise. Shares in the company doing the buying usually fall.

Don't know if it's cause they're just healthier, but Whole Foods and Wild Oats are the exceptions that are proving the rule today. Both companies closed up more than 13 percent this afternoon. The pair announced yesterday Whole Foods would pay about half a billion dollars for its smaller rival.

Commentator Alex Markels worries the deal will just add to the rising prices of natural foods — like organic kale.

ALEX MARKELS: Let me first go on the record by saying that I don't really like kale. It tastes like a cross between spinach and broccoli, only it's tougher, and stringier and more . . . sour.

But, I know, it's good for me — at least, my wife and her friends say it is when they serve up dishes like kale-and-barley au gratin. And so I shop it out at our local grocery stores.

In a health-obsessed town like Boulder, there used to be plenty of choices. The local co-op stocked it. Wild Oats, too. So did Alfalfa's and another locally-owned store called the Ideal Market. That is, until Wild Oats bought both stores out, and seemed to raise the price not only on kale, but on everything else, too.

Then came Whole Foods, otherwise known around my house as "Whole Paycheck."

Its parking lot is the Boulder equivalent of a NASCAR race. Drivers with "Give peace a chance" bumper stickers cut each other off as they angle for the best parking spots. They do the same thing inside with their shopping carts, where the crowd at the fish counter can get three-people deep — even though the wild halibut can run 20 bucks a pound.

Thankfully, there's never a line in front of the organic kale. But, like the fish, it's the priciest in town.

That's why I was hopeful last year when I heard Wild Oats planned to open a big new store across the street from their arch-rival. I figured, great: it'll be just the thing to bring out the best kale — and the best prices — in both of them.

But now, Whole Foods is swallowing up Wild Oats. Which means they'll not only own most all of the natural food stores in town, they'll also have a stranglehold on the organic kale supply.

All I can hope is that the Federal Trade Commission will keep that fact in mind as they consider whether to approve the merger. Either that, or I'll have to ask my local Wal-Mart to start carrying it. Although I bet their's will taste just as sour.

RYSSDAL: Alex Markels is a writer at U.S. News & World Report.


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