Whole Foods Draws Controversy Over Ramadan Promotion

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Whole Foods landed in some hot water this week after advertising food for Ramadan, then seemingly backing off, then returning to their original stance.

The grocery chain, known for being socially conscious, started promoting frozen food from Saffron Road that is halal (meaning it follows Muslim dietary laws and restrictions) in commemoration of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

The promotion, which included giveaways of gift cards, received an enthusiastic response from Muslim customers. One foodie named Kari responded to Whole Foods’ blog post announcing the specials, saying “This is great! Finally a major retailer has recognized [its] Muslim customers!”

(PHOTOS: Iftar: Breaking Ramadan’s Fast)

The offering caused backlash among some, though, who demanded Whole Foods remove the special. One conservative blogger, Debbie Schlussel, claimed Whole Foods was ready to do anything to “shill for jihadist interests” and is “anti-Israel.”

Things only got worse from there when an internal email that was obtained by the Houston Press said that they should continue to promote halal but not necessarily celebrate Ramadan in an effort to prevent any more criticism from the far right.

“It is probably best that we don’t specifically call out or ‘promote’ Ramadan,” the email read.

Activists supporting Muslims immediately fired back, accusing the chain of caving on their original deal. Disapproval of the perceived retreat was palpable in comments from customers on the chain’s blog and to their Twitter account.

“[I’m] disappointed to hear that Whole Foods has capitulated to a vocal minority that does not believe in the freedom to observe non-Christian religious practices in America,” customer Bunnie Watson said in response to the same Whole Foods blog post that announced the sale.

Whole Foods is now on a public-relations marathon to continue to promote halal and Ramadan. The email was authentic, they say, but it was not a directive from Whole Foods headquarters and instead was sent from an office in one of Whole Foods’s 12 regions, according to their Twitter account. When asked via Twitter whether HQ “set this store straight,” the store replied “yes, we did.”

“We are still carrying and promoting halal products for those that are celebrating #Ramadan this month,” read one of the chain’s tweets.

PHOTOS: Ramadan in the Year of the Arab Spring

Zachary Cohen is a contributor for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Zachary_Cohen. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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