Whole Foods Warned to Address Food Safety

Prepared foods are an increasingly important part of the grocery business, delivering fat margins at a time when sales of traditional packaged foods are lackluster. But the strategy also comes with serious risks as Whole Foods warned to address food safety.

In the clearest example yet, the Food and Drug Administration this month sent a stern warning letter to Whole Foods Market, a longtime champion of fresh and healthy foods, saying that the company had failed to address a long list of food safety issues at its food processing plant outside of Boston.

Among the problems cited: condensation dripping from the ceiling near food; an ammonium-based sanitizer used on a work surface near the preparation of a salad; and a failure to separate dirty dishes from ready-to-eat-salads.

The letter from the F.D.A. is just the latest headache to afflict Whole Foods. Over the last couple of years, the company has struggled with slower growth as competitors have gotten better at copying what it did to distinguish itself in the grocery market. Other wounds have been self-inflicted, like last year, when the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs called it out for mispricing some merchandise based on weight.

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Prepared foods, which have almost double the profit margins of packaged foods sold on grocery shelves, have remained a bright spot at the company — at least for now. Such foods accounted for almost 20 percent of its sales in 2014, ringing up $2.7 billion in revenue.

Last fall, Whole Foods voluntarily recalled batches of Curry Chicken Salad and Classic Deli Pasta Salad after a sample prepared at the North Atlantic Kitchen tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogenic strain of the bacterium. The plant is one of three preparation kitchens that help stock its stores in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and South. (Most of the company’s foods are prepared at the stores themselves.)

In February, the inspectors spent five days at the plant and then shared their findings with Whole Foods, which responded within 15 business days. The company told the F.D.A. that it had retrained employees to address most of the issues the agency raised.

That response, however, failed to satisfy the F.D.A. “We do not consider your response acceptable because you failed to provide documentation for our review, which demonstrates that all your noted corrective actions have been effectively implemented,” the agency wrote in its June 8 warning letter.

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FDA to Increase Speed of Recalled Foods

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is too slow to order companies to recalled foods, leaving people at risk of illness and death, a government watchdog said in a review of the agency’s food safety program.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General reviewed 30 recalls that occurred between 2012 and 2015, including two in which companies did not recall all affected items until 165 days and 81 days after the FDA became aware of tainted foods. The watchdog issued its report on Wednesday.

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“FDA does not have adequate policies and procedures to ensure that firms take prompt and effective action in initiating voluntary food recalls,” the report said. “As a result, consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA was aware of a potentially hazardous food in the supply chain.”

The watchdog urged the FDA to address the problem immediately.

In a blog post, FDA food safety officials Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg called the report’s findings “unacceptable” and said the agency is “totally committed” to food safety.

Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut in a statement said it was “mind-boggling” that the FDA does not have policies or procedures to ensure swift voluntary food recalls.

DeLauro, who oversees drug and food safety in her position on the House of Representatives subcommittee responsible for the FDA, pointed to a salmonella outbreak last year in cucumbers, which sickened nearly 900 people, hospitalized 191 and killed six. The outbreak began in July, but it took until September before producers started recalling product.

“Delays like this one – and others found in the report – are completely unacceptable and leave American consumers at risk for illness and death,” DeLauro said.

Ostroff and Sklamberg said the FDA has a plan underway to strengthen compliance and enforcement policies, including both voluntary and mandatory recalls.

But they said recalls must be based on scientific evidence borne out of an outbreak investigation. And while timeframes for recalls need to be set, “they must be done on an individual basis rather than by setting arbitrary deadlines.”

To speed the FDA’s response, Ostroff and Sklamberg said the agency has established a team of experts from different scientific disciplines to oversee outbreak investigations. They also cited FDA’s adoption in 2014 of the use of whole genome sequencing, a more precise technology for determining the genetic fingerprint of foodborne pathogens.


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Great Grains Recall

Post Consumer Brands is voluntarily recalling a limited quantity of its Great Grains Protein Blend – Honey, Oats & Seeds cereal because it contains sunflower seeds that have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The sunflower seeds were obtained from a supplier, SunOpta, which recalled its ingredient.

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Listeria monocytogenes is an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

No illnesses have been reported to date, but Post Consumer Brands is recalling the products out of an abundance of caution.

The recalled items were sold in packaging similar to the image below and can be identified by a “Best when used by” code printed on the top of the box. Only the following codes are affected by this recall:

  • AUG1416
  • NOV1016
  • AUG1516
  • NOV1116
  • AUG1616
  • NOV1216
  • AUG1716
  • FEB1817
  • NOV0916
  • FEB1917

Recalled products were distributed to customers throughout the United States and sold through retail stores nationwide. No other Post products are affected by this action.

Consumers should not consume these products. Products may be returned to the point of purchase for a refund or discarded. Consumers seeking information can visit the website, www.postconsumerbrands.com/greatgrains or contact the company at 1-800-431-7678 Monday through Friday, 9:00AM – 5:00 PM Eastern time.

“Our first and highest priority is the quality and wholesomeness of our products,” said Chris Neugent, Post Consumer Brands’ president and chief executive officer. “We will always act on the side of caution in such matters as we have in this instance.”

About Post Consumer Brands

Post Consumer Brands is a business unit of Post Holdings, Inc., formed from the combination of Post Foods and MOM Brands in May 2015. Headquartered in Lakeville, Minn., Post Consumer Brands today is the third-largest cereal company in the United States with a broad portfolio spanning all segments of the category — from iconic household name brands and value ready-to-eat cereals to natural/organic and hot cereal varieties. As a company committed to high standards of quality and to our values, we are driven by one idea: To make better happen every day. For more information about us, visit www.postfoods.com and www.mombrands.com.



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