Whole Foods Market, the largest US natural and organic supermarket, is to start offering its healthier workers higher discounts on their grocery shopping, in a move it says is aimed at cutting healthcare costs.

John Mackey, chief executive officer, said in a recent letter to employees that indicators including blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index would be used to determine the level of discount offered above the basic 20 per cent available to all employees.

Mr Mackey said the company hoped the programme would be “empowering and fun for team members who enjoy a challenge”, and that the company was not taking anything away from workers who chose not to participate.

“These new higher discounts are incentives to encourage our team members to be healthier and to lower our healthcare costs,” he said. “We believe this is a win-win programme that will help both our team members and our shareholders.”

A workplace poster explaining what the company calls its “healthy discount incentive programme” sets out four possible employee discount levels – bronze, silver, gold and platinum.

The maximum 30 per cent platinum discount requires employees not to smoke, to have a BMI of less than 24, cholesterol levels below 150 mg/dL and blood pressure of 110/70. Employees who would be considered obese – with a BMI of over 30 – would not qualify.

Staff wishing to take part in the programme are being asked to undergo biometric screening sessions at Whole Foods’ 289 stores in the US, Canada and the UK.

The approach reflects Mr Mackey’s own libertarian political thinking, which has made him an outspoken critic of the healthcare reforms now before Congress. He argues that health reform should move “toward less government control and more individual empowerment” while asserting that there is no “intrinsic right to healthcare, food or shelter” in the US.

But Whole Foods’ effort is also part of a broader trend among businesses concerned by rising health costs. Companies including Kellogg, Humana, Johnson & Johnson and Dell have all linked discounts on insurance payments to a range of health indicators in an effort to create incentives for healthy behaviour.

Safeway, the US supermarket chain that has taken a lead on the issue, offers members of its non-union healthcare plan discounts of $780 if they meet standards in the same four areas set out by Whole Foods. The retailer has also tested using its supermarket loyalty card sales data to offer health premium discounts to employees who purchase more healthy foods. Critics argue that the approach is potentially discriminatory.

Whole Foods has more than 54,000 employees.

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