By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Many consumers shop at Whole Foods because they perceive it to be a healthy choice. With rows upon rows of organic produce, grass-fed beef, bulk goods without those chemical-laden packages, and plenty of fresh prepared salad bar choices, it is easy to observe why most people consider Whole Foods to be the mecca of health. With a brand focused on health, it is shocking to believe Whole Foods is in the news this week – with a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) citing “serious violations” and findings of Listeria contamination.

A Brief History of Whole Foods and Its Creed

In 1980, a small group of local natural product retailers in Austin, Texas got together and decided to take a chance at opening a natural grocery store. As one of only six natural food grocers in the United States, business took off quickly. Whole Foods began to grow in 1984 with its expansion to Dallas and Houston. By 1988, they had locations in New Orleans. Today, Whole Foods is the eighth largest grocery retailer in the United States with 435 stores nationwide and a fiscal year of $15.4 billion according to their website.

Since its inception, the Whole Foods brand has been built on eating better to live better. In fact, their web motto “better life” encompasses this creed. Popular with those following the organic and natural food revolution, Whole Foods caters to people who want to eat foods in their most basic state minus all of the additives.

What is this Warning Letter All About?

On June 8, 2016, the FDA sent a warning letter to Whole Foods Chief Executive Officers John Mackey and Walter Robb. The letter informs Whole Foods that the FDA conducted an inspection of the Whole Foods Market North Atlantic Kitchen, a multiple-food manufacturing facility, in February of 2016. This facility alone, located in Everett, Massachusetts, stocks about 74 Whole Foods stores in the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

During the investigation, the FDA noted “serious violations” in the facility relating to food “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been contaminated with filth or rendered injurious to health.” The letter cites that some of these serious violations were related to improper storage, improper sanitization of the food preparation areas, and contaminated water splashing or dripping into ready-to-eat food items. The issues, more specifically, included:

  • Condensate from the ceiling joints dripping into the food preparation spaces
  • Cutting and preparing food underneath dripping condensate from the ceiling
  • Transporting food uncovered that was ready to eat in an area with condenser fan bolts
  • Holding ready to eat vegetables and food preparation materials near a hand washing station
  • Failing to have a hand washing station with splash guards – which caused employees washing their soiled hands to splash water outside the sink and into the food preparation area
  • Having high pressure hoses spraying potentially contaminated water onto ready-to-eat foods
  • Splashing potentially soiled water onto covered and uncovered ready-to-eat vegetables, utensils, and food containers
  • Failing to wash hands or wear gloves when changing between food preparation tasks and/or handling exposed products
  • Spraying sanitizer to clean work surfaces onto exposed food
  • Failing to sanitize and thoroughly dry, prior to use, food-contact surfaces which had been wet cleaned
  • Failing to identify the proper chemicals needed to maintain a sanitized food preparation environment
  • Failing to have the proper temperature for hand washing
  • Failing to sanitize and decontaminate areas with positive Listeria contamination

Despite the amount of violations listed in the letter, which is not exhaustive, the FDA has only given Whole Foods a warning. The warning letter cites that the FDA released its observations to Whole Foods on February 26, 2016. Whole Foods provided the FDA with a response on March 17, 2016. However, Whole Foods failed to respond to the FDA with any documentation to show that they were making changes to remedy the violations. The FDA expressed additional concerns to Whole Foods and has given Whole Foods a 15-day deadline to provide them with a listing of their methods to remedy the violations. The FDA demanded documentation in the form of “photographs, invoices, work orders, voluntary destruction records of any affected products, certification of actions performed by contractors, and/or any other useful information” to ensure that Whole Foods is taking the warning seriously.

If Whole Foods fails to heed the FDA’s warning, then the FDA could and may impose not only sanctions, but also could completely close down the facility until the proper changes have been made and properly documented. These changes would also include a retraining of the staff for proper food safety techniques and procedures.

The full warning letter can be accessed through the FDA website here.

The investigation by the FDA at Whole Foods’ Everett, Massachusetts facility comes less than six months after Whole Foods issued a recall on its chicken curry prepared salads. In October of 2015, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that Whole Foods’ popular salad tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes contamination. These ready-to-eat salads, about 230 pounds worth, were prepared at the same facility subject to the June 8, 2016 warning letter.

What Does Whole Foods Have to Say?

A CNBC news outlet reported that Whole Foods appeared to be shocked at the FDA’s allegations. Ken Meyer, Executive Vice President of Operations for Whole Foods Market commented, “We were honestly surprised.” Whole Foods has stated that they will work closely with the FDA to remedy the violations. Mr. Meyer claims, “We’ve been in close contact with the FDA, opened our doors to inspectors regularly since February and worked with them to address every issue brought to our attention.” An unnamed Whole Foods spokeswoman has claimed that they are making strides to make the facility safer and was surprised that these changes were not noted in the FDA’s letter.

Other than this response, there is not really much more by way of detailing the changes they intend to make or have made. Only time will tell if Whole Foods takes the FDA warning seriously.