Whole Foods Market Gets FDA Warning Over Presence of Listeria

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Whole Foods Market received a warning letter from the FDA on June 8 after serious health violations were encountered at a regional food preparation facility, including evidence of a potentially deadly strain of Listeria, a major cause of food borne illness.

The FDA's letter cited this and other violations witnessed during multiple visits to a Whole Foods Market kitchen in Everett, Massachusetts, in February, including condensation dripping onto prep dishes, hand washing stations without hot water, improperly diluted sanitizing products, and uncovered barrels of egg salad. Whole Foods Market has 15 days to respond to the letter and will likely have to pay for further inspections.

The letter came after Whole Foods Market's initial response was deemed unacceptable by the FDA. The agency said that the original response did not offer sufficient documentation for plans to correct these problems, which could include any of the following, according to Food Safety News: “Photographs, invoices, work orders, voluntary destruction records, and contractor certifications.”

“This is pretty serious from a major company that the public generally looks to as a good actor,” Mel Kramer, president of EHA Consulting Group Inc., a Baltimore firm that advises restaurants and food manufacturers on food safety, told the Boston Globe. “An inspection is a picture, and the picture during those inspections was pretty poor.”

Whole Foods Market global vice president of operations, Ken Meyer expressed surprise at the letter. “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,” he said.

This is not the first time that Whole Foods Market has been issued a similar warning letter, according to the Globe. A distribution center near Denver was issued a letter in March 2014 claiming that certain fish had been “adulterated” and “prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health."

Last year, Whole Foods Market also recalled batches of its curry chicken salad and classic deli pasta salad from certain regional stores after products had tested positive for a form of Listeria.

The Listeria found in the Everett kitchen was Listeria welsimeri, an indicator of the probable presence of Listeria monocytogenes, which is potentially deadly, particularly to pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

The 70,000 square foot kitchen in question is known as the Whole Foods “North Atlantic” kitchen and makes ready-to-eat foods for 74 stores in eight Northeastern states, including Massachusetts and New York. These ready-to-eat foods are an increasing part of grocery offerings given their higher profit margins. Whole Foods' new 365 by Whole Foods Market also prioritizes this sort of offering.

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