By: Candess Zona-Mendola

With the hype of the organic foods revolution, alternative grocery retailers like Whole Foods have become popular mainstays. Those who are regular patrons of establishments like Whole Foods have commented that they feel the foods they purchase from retailers such as these are better for them or healthier. Although studies have shown that organic foods account for 83% of foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States, many people believe that organic automatically means better for you. This belief may not always be true. In fact, alternative grocery retailers, like Whole Foods, have been recently connected with food safety issues.

This week, Whole Foods is back in the news with another announcement of a closure of their facilities. For those who remember, Whole Foods was in the spotlight in 2015 and last year with Listeria concerns and unsafe food practices relating to their prepared foods in its North Atlantic Kitchen.

2015 Listeria Recall

The public learned of Whole Foods practices of using regional kitchens to prepare their ready-to-eat foods in 2015 during a Listeria scare. In October of 2015, Whole Foods partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a recall of approximately 234 pounds of curry chicken salad products that were potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The Massachusetts Department of Health notified the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) about the contamination. The contamination was found during sample testing on Whole Foods’ products.

The potentially contaminated products allegedly came from one of these regional kitchens, the North Atlantic Kitchen facility, and was shipped to seven states. The recall appeared to be a success, and the FDA did not report any illnesses related to the recall. Even though the recall was indeed successful, it was an omen for the discovery of concerning unsafe food practices at the North Atlantic Kitchen facility.

2016 FDA Inspection Woes

In June of 2016, following an inspection conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency sent Whole Foods a warning letter. The letter cited several unsafe food practices, including:

  • 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

The letter came after the FDA’s initial request to Whole Foods to remedy various food safety violations. As Whole Foods did not provide proper proof of compliance, the FDA sent the warning letter.

Despite the severity of the violations and the fact that the facility stocked over 70 stores in Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the agency only gave Whole Foods a warning. The agency did not shut down operations, and Whole Foods was given 15 days to remedy the issues. As of the time of this post, there has not been any reporting or closure of this inspection by the FDA.

2017 Moving Forward

Whole Foods announced in January of 2017 of their intent to move toward a corporate consolidation of their food preparation and distribution practices. The result of the changeover was the closure of three regional kitchen facilities on the East Coast of the United States. The facilities, located in Everett, Massachusetts; Landover, Maryland; and Atlanta, Georgia were the last operated by Whole Foods. Currently, stores in the western part of the United States rely on ready-to-eat and prepared foods made directly in-stores or provided by outside companies. When interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Whole Foods representative Betsy Harden commented:

“As part of our ongoing plan to streamline operations, we have decided to leverage the expertise of our supplier network to create some of the high-quality prepared foods sold in our stores. After careful consideration, we have decided to close our three remaining regional kitchen facilities… We will continue to invest in culinary innovation and hospitality to further differentiate our brand, including our in-store venues and our freshly prepared on-site offerings.””

Company representatives purportedly comment that the 2016 FDA warning letter has no bearing on the decision to close the remaining regional kitchen facilities. When the facilities close in March, Whole Foods will use outside vendors to stock its prepared and ready-to-eat foods. Also, Whole Foods representatives have purported that all of its 446 stores have or will have the capacity and ability to prepare food on-site. Whole Foods also purportedly commented that they will continue to invest in these programs in their stores.

Big Changes, But What About Food Safety?

As a result of declining sales in its stores, Whole Foods has shown a significant loss in comparable sales. Whole Foods has made several strides to change its business practices. After dropping on of its Chief Executive Officers and launching a loyalty program, Whole Foods appears to be securing a more “corporate-like” model. Many contribute this to be methods to keep up with their big grocer competitors, like Kroger.

Yet, none of the big changes by Whole Foods appear to mention or allude to any advancements in food safety. Apart from Whole Foods’ promise to retrain its employees following the FDA investigation in 2016, the company has not publically commented on its strides to make its food safer. Furthermore, it does not appear that the company has unveiled any new food safety practices it intends to implement in its stores’ new prepared foods departments.