- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A federal judge yesterday gave a tentative green light to premium grocer Whole Foods Market Inc.’s plan to buy rival Wild Oats Markets Inc., rejecting arguments the deal would stifle competition and lead to higher prices.

The judge denied a request by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to temporarily block the $565 million deal. The government had said it would appeal such a ruling.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman’s reasoning was filed in a 93-page document that was sealed because it contains corporate secrets.

FTC Competition Director Jeffrey Schmidt called the decision a loss for consumers and competition.

“We respect the court’s decision, which we currently are reviewing. We brought this challenge because the evidence before us showed that the merger would most likely result in higher prices and reduced choices for consumers who shop at premium natural and organic supermarkets,” he said last night. “We are reviewing our options.”

Whole Foods operates 190 stores, while Colorado company Wild Oats has about 110. Both are relatively small players in the grocery business, but government lawyers said the combined company would essentially corner the industry market on premium and organic food.

Whole Foods, of Austin, Texas, argued that plenty of other supermarkets, including much larger chains, sell natural and organic food. But FTC lawyers said only Wild Oats provides the kind of competition needed to keep prices in check.

Whole Foods documents outlining the deal, dubbed Operation Goldmine, call for about 30 Wild Oats stores to be closed, according to a government court filing. The company expects revenue at nearby Whole Foods stores to nearly double, government lawyers said.

The proposed merger has attracted a lot of interest from analysts and industry insiders, who crowded two courtrooms to absorb details that emerged about the two companies.

It also made headlines for odd reasons: Whole Foods Chief Executive Officer John Mackey was revealed to have touted the company on Internet message boards under a pseudonym, and the FTC inadvertently revealed dozens of company secrets by incorrectly redacting electronic documents.