Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

The Safety of Meat at Whole Foods Market

By Edmund LaMacchia, August 12, 2008  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Edmund LaMacchia

Edmund LaMacchia is our Global Vice President of Procurement.

We know our customers put a great deal of trust in us and because of this recent beef recall; we feel we have let you down. But first I'd like to tell you that no one is more disappointed than I am. Our own trust in our beef supplier was misplaced in this instance.  We have worked for the last 28 years to establish second-to-none quality and safety standards. With our excellent track record of providing the very best beef products over the years, we have never had a confirmed case of Coli 0157:H7 in our meat departments.

As soon as we learned of the possibility that a small amount of ground beef from our stores in two states could be related to nine people who became sick, we reacted quickly. While we searched for any direct link between the illnesses and meat from our stores - all tests of our beef have so far come back negative for E. coli - we determined it was important for the health of our customers to issue a voluntary recall of ground beef from multiple states that was purchased between June 2 and August 6, 2008. So, how did this happen?  In our investigations since this began, we've found out that one of our suppliers, Coleman Natural Beef, for a short time, used an unauthorized processing plant, Nebraska Beef, to process some of the natural beef products it shipped to us this summer. While Coleman's quality standards have always been high, they were recently bought by another company, and ensuing changes apparently lead to confusion about which plants were approved to send products to Whole Foods Market. While we don't like to be part of any recall, it is important to note that most of the meat in question went to other retailers.  Almost 12 hours after we issued our voluntary recall, Nebraska Beef announced a recall of its own, targeting the same beef. Of the 1.2 million pounds in the Nebraska Beef recall, only about 4 percent of that was destined for Whole Foods Market stores.  That means the VAST MAJORITY of the beef in question went to other retailers. Because our voluntary announcement and the Nebraska Beef Class 1 recall were announced during the same 24-hour period, the media has gotten details of the story wrong on many accounts. It's really important that our customers know that we absolutely do have our own processes in place for quality and safety, and we have worked very hard to create the highest standards for meat in the grocery business.  Even so, we are taking a really close look at them now, investigating any possible areas of vulnerability. We know that we need to earn your trust back and I'd like to start that process by detailing some of the steps we have in place now and explain our initial plans for strengthening them. Evaluating the suppliers: Every beef supplier who wants to sell to Whole Foods Market must provide us with extensive information, detailing their practices around food safety and the treatment of their animals. We ask about raising practices, transportation of animals, slaughterhouse procedures, and conditions at the meat processing plants. This is about as far as most grocery stores go in vetting meat suppliers. We don't stop there -- Whole Foods Market visits farms and ranches and sends independent, third-party professional auditors to the facilities involved to check that the conditions described by the supplier are accurate. Once we've confirmed that a supplier meets our quality and safety standards, we continue to monitor each supplier with annual audits. Evaluating the facilities: Likewise, all suppliers must have the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants they use approved under the same Whole Foods Market process listed above. Our food safety audits of these facilities include checking bacteria levels, ensuring that equipment is maintained correctly, that meat is processed through required sanitation baths and that temperature logs are updated.  If a supplier changes facilities, they are required to notify us. Evaluating product: When beef products arrive at our distribution centers and stores, we follow receiving standards such as checking temperatures, and invoices, and double-checking weight to ensure quality and food safety. We have third-party auditors check distribution centers and stores for their food safety processes and cleanliness, and grade their performance on these issues with regularity. So what changes can we make to this process to ensure further safety for our customers?  The first thing we've done is implement an audit of the chain of custody of every shipment of meat before it is sent to our distribution centers. And our Team Members must be able to determine upon arrival to our distribution centers if a product is from an approved processing plant, or they will not accept the shipment. Also, we will be requesting additional E. coli tests onsite at approved processing plants, and we'll conduct further random testing via third-party visits. Whole Foods Market is committed to finding new ways of doing business and addressing challenges head-on. While a problem like this is never pleasant to deal with, we know that we can grow, learn and come out stronger on the other side. I hope that you will continue to shop with us and I give you my promise that we have smart, dedicated people working diligently to ensure that safety issues that can be avoided don't come up again. If you have specific questions about our meat safety processes, please send a comment and I'll try to address them.

Editor’s Note: This blog was modified on 9/22/15 to update how we refer to our standards.

Category: Food Safety




Laura says ...
I thought you ground your beef in store. It's one of the main reasons I only buy ground beef from whole foods. Also, the "gourmet" burgers used to be made in store, but don't appear to be anymore. Where are they made?
08/12/2008 8:49:37 PM CDT
paig292 says ...
Laura: Yes, we do grind our own beef in our stores. The recall was for some of the source meat that we used for grinding during the June to August dates. Even though over 95% of our ground meat came from other sources during that time, we need to be cautious and recall all of the ground beef from the mentioned states. Most of our burgers patties are made in our stores. If you give me the name of your store, we can check for you.
08/12/2008 8:50:52 PM CDT
amy says ...
I believe their meat is freshly ground in the store. I have seen it. My question is I made a huge batch of sauce from it, using peppers, mushrooms, onions, garlic, 93% sirloin ground,4 cans of Muir tomatoes, tomato paste, and I have had some and not gotten sick. Lots is frozen. If I have not gotten sick, should I assume it is okay?
08/13/2008 5:39:14 AM CDT
Donna Simon says ...
my husband had picadillo (very expensive for picadillo) last week on 8/5/08 and got sick. Diareahia and stomach issues for week. Cannot afford to be ill or die cause someone did not do their job. I shopped at the gorgeous new store On Sand Lake in Orlando... What's up? I have my reciept. We shop there when we can afford it and pay those prices because we believe that you make a priority about where your food is bought, that it is quality and how it is shipped. Really be disappointing to lose faith in your precieved offerings to the public about high standard and quality food and don't live up to your own standards. At the same time you can never rely 100 percent on others as they are not always honest or do the best thing (beef company). Sometimes thigs just happen. I mean publix beats up their veggies so bad. and you can see theshipping and handling is poor and they have gooten to hot and thrown around. Donna Simon
08/13/2008 6:05:07 AM CDT
Eric Jackson says ...
Whole Foods cannot be held responsible at this stage of the game for the heinous practices of Nebraska Beef and the USDA. If, however, Whole Foods does not do a better job of tracing the supply chain, they are in the same league as Nebraska Beef. Below is an excerpt from a story on Nebraska Beef and the USDA. It is beyond me how a company (NB), can RESPOND SLOWLY to warnings that their beef might be contaminated. I have also read a comment from a NB mouth piece stating that they are now taking USDA warnings more seriously and have started to develop a better relationship with the USDA. Are you kidding me? How can any business simply disregard mandates by the USDA? Oh wait, let me guess... a little money here, a vacation home in Colorado, etc. The whole industry is corrupt and is run by powers of evil in high places. I am not surprised that another George Bush chosen leader has not done anything to further/better an office they were appointed to. The state of our nation's leaders and policies is disgusting - I have no words to express the lack of respect that I feel towards our "chosen" leaders - but getting johnny six pack informed will never-ever happen. Feed them cheap beer, brain rotting TV, and easy online sex and you have the masses sedated beyond a politician's wildest dreams. I will continue to buy at Whole Foods - maybe WF management will wake up. I guess this just means even higher prices. Here are the excerpts - go ahead search on Nebraska Beef and the USDA - I dare you! First, a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) investigation at processing plants that collaborated with Nebraska Beef Ltd. revealed E. coli contamination occurred because some production practices took place under “insanitary” conditions. Those conditions were found to be insufficient to prevent E. coli bacteria. Now, federal officials are saying that Nebraska Beef responded slowly to warnings that its products might be tainted with the E. coli bacteria. Nebraska Beef has been involved in other issues where questionable practices and food contamination were found to have occurred. In 2003, the USDA went to court to try to shut down Nebraska Beef’s Omaha packing plant after citing it for numerous violations. Three years later, Minnesota public health and USDA officials linked an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in ground beef that killed a Minnesota woman to Nebraska Beef. In 2007, Nebraska Beef sued the USDA saying its inspectors had unfairly targeted it. Nebraska Beef, based in Omaha, is pursuing a very different tactic. For starters, the company has denied that it is responsible for providing bad meat, and it has provided a culprit of its own. It blames the Salem Lutheran Church — contending in its own lawsuit that the volunteer church ladies who prepared the food were negligent. Nebraska Beef’s lawyers are even preparing to depose the minister.
08/13/2008 7:29:11 AM CDT
Martin Plotkn, M.D. says ...
Access to medical informational sources (AMA, CDC) puts your statement in a different light than you are broadcasting. I have sent hundreds if not more patients and their families to your stores over the years. Whole Foods has more than let me and my patients down, they have been party to much worse! The signage in your meat department clearly states no hormones and no antibiotics. Obviously Whole Foods has no actual means of corroborating this claim if they are just taking suppliers' word for this. I have taken a great deal of heat from my patients and rightly so. Shame on you and on me for believing Whole Foods propaganda. My disappointment in Whole Foods because of their uncorroborated claims is profound. Whole Foods implied that they test their meat for hormones and antibiotics and all the while Whole Foods was not even reading the packaging labels that came from their wholesalers. Pretty disgusting! As a professional medical doctor I know what it would take to reestablish your reputation but I would not waste any more time to spell it out for you! Martin Plotkin, M.D., F.A.A.O.S. (In honest and high integrity practice for 44 years)
08/13/2008 8:39:21 AM CDT
christina says ...
I have been shopping at whole foods for years and have only recieved the highest quailty of products. Lets not be so quick to condem and look at the market as a whole. Great job even on reacting to the tainted beef.
08/13/2008 8:55:08 AM CDT
Bix says ...
I'm surprised that nowhere in the above Whole Story was there an apology. I see that others were blamed for this mistake, but I do not see "We're sorry."
08/13/2008 10:11:20 AM CDT
Lisa says ...
"While Coleman’s quality standards have always been high, they were recently bought by another company, and ensuing changes apparently lead to confusion about which plants were approved to send products to Whole Foods Market." I'd be curious to learn more about this other "company," since I've been buying meat from Whole Foods for years, and if such a major problem has already occurred as a result of the poor judgement and management of this new company that bought out Coleman's, this could be a terrible omen of what's to come unless something is done fast.
08/13/2008 11:02:33 AM CDT
Charles Maier says ...
I didn't realize until I read the comment "this is a big blow to their reputation" that it was that bad. thanks for telling me that. But I'm still a Whole Foods fan.
08/13/2008 11:18:04 AM CDT
Jim Brunner says ...
I am a customer of whole foods store in North Carolina. I recently moved from the home base of WF in Austin TX. In knowing the upbringing of the WF movement/store and their history, i believe they are in it for the long haul and want to do the right thing, however, they have chosen the difficult task of growing their business on a nationwide level. So, how are they going to be different from other nationwide grocers/retailers? I'm not sure they can, if this is any indication then I'm going to save my money and buy a large freezer. I'll get in with the local farmer's market and buy a side of beef from their farm, where I can actually watch the slaughter practice and make sure it's done the proper way. It's still no ASSURED that it will be TOTALLY safe, but more so than this WF source. We take a chance when we get out of bed everyday, there is ALWAYS RISK in our life, we'll never eliminate it all. I think that is a hard pill to swallow for all of us. Good luck, JB
08/13/2008 11:46:46 AM CDT
Judith Mattson says ...
It’s unfortunate that this happened just when I was beginning to feel comfortable that Whole Foods’ presence is being felt in the former Wild Oats’ stores. Just last week I wrote to say how great it was that you are getting out the message of reliability (“The Whole Deal” blog). I commend you now for your relatively quick action. I am distressed, however, that I didn’t hear about the recall until after I had bought and consumed a burger; it was unsettling -- dissemination of the recall appeared limited and slow. Your lengthy explanation was helpful. I choose to believe this incident will serve to inform and improve your quality standards and practices, especially in the area of audit. My own business experience suggests, however, that operational processes change during mergers and acquisitions. I find it distressing that WFM was not “on top of it” with this situation – perhaps additional communications or audits with Coleman. It’s also important to consider the danger of taking comfort in terms like “small amount”. I did a quick calculation based on the 4% of the 1.2 million pounds that was potentially distributed to 270 Whole Foods stores (a generous assumption, since you have said only a limited number of stores could possibly have been involved). This suggests that, on average, 177 Whole Foods’ customers per store might have purchased one pound of the contaminated beef and about 530 or so people (per store) might have been exposed to the deadly e-coli. From your global perspective, that may seem like a “small amount”, but it would hardly seem so to your customers and the people they feed. Going forward, I share your positive perspective. I will continue to shop Whole Foods Market as I do now -- for what you do especially well, and where you provide the related value in quality and reliability.
08/13/2008 2:29:25 PM CDT
amy says ...
Dr Plotkin, Yes a mistake was made by not reading a suppliers label, yes Whole Foods has accepted responsibility for it, yes you may have sent your patients there, yes it is a fabulous store that I will continue to shop at, and if you do not send your patients or continue to belittle a store that to me represents one of the classiest examples of sustainabilty and environmentally friendly corporate 'know how', then you do not deserve th M.D. after your name!
08/13/2008 2:52:05 PM CDT
Claire Atkinson says ...
I'm a little stunned by what has happened, since I'm always wary of ground beef wherever I buy it, but I think Whole Foods is to be commended not condemed for reacting so quickly. I love their stores, shopping there is one of the highlights of my week. It's rare that any dish disappoints. Ultimately, this occurence will improve food safety standards even further, and Whole Foods arguably has the best in the business. As someone who writes on marketing and PR issues, I have been wondering how Whole Foods would deal with the inevitable. I support them Whole-heartedly. Thanks for providing a wonderful place to shop.
08/13/2008 4:23:24 PM CDT
Ryan Beasley says ...
Whole Foods clearly cares about this issue, and is taking every practical step to ensure that their meat is safe. I do not believe that other grocery chains can say the same. Thank you, Whole Foods, for acting quickly in this situation. I will continue to shop at Whole Foods.
08/13/2008 5:44:47 PM CDT
lamacchiae says ...
Thank you, to all of you who have contributed comments to this blog. I hear your frustration loud and clear. This is the first time in our history that Whole Foods Market has been part of an E. coli recall for beef. While recalls of this nature are standard in the generic beef industry, we do not accept it as a cost of doing business and we intend to do everything in our control to ensure the safety of our customers, now and in the future. As the beef packing industry has consolidated (82% of all beef packing is controlled by three corporations) we have created initiatives, like our local loan program, that focus on creating a new supply chain of meat proteins that is not dependent on centralized processing and distribution. With regard to the current situation, as we collect more detailed information we are learning that about 5% of the 1.2 million pounds of beef recalled by Nebraska Beef Omaha was delivered to our stores, yet we were the first company to alert our customers by issuing a recall. I do not say this to make light of the seriousness of the issue for those who may have been exposed to the tainted beef, but to highlight our capability to track down the issue and identify the source. We stand behind our products. It is our standard policy to provide refunds to our customers for any purchases with which there are quality issues. In the case of this recall, we honored all ground beef returns regardless of state or circumstance. As important as it is to have the capability to recognize a problem and identify our responsibility as a consumer advocate; this event did not occur because we were negligent or slow to react. Few, if any retailers, track processing facility information; in fact, most rely on their marketers to perform that responsibility for them. We have been tracking that information for years and through this event have determined more ways to improve on that process. I want to repeat that this is the first time we have had this experience; despite the fact that it is a common occurrence in the generic beef industry. The real solution is not testing or intensified audit processes (although we are committed to both at this time), but it is recreating the production process; a process that supports animals’ natural behavior, and relies on processing from a local facility that is operationally designed to generate exceptional quality rather then intensive head count throughput. Through our Quality Standards, Animal Welfare, Local, and 100% Grassfed initiatives, we have been systematically decentralizing our supply and creating new business structures to do just that. Our commitment to these initiatives is core to our reason for being in business. Creating a new supply chain paradigm in the face of an industry that is in regression will take a few years to complete; as a result, we are simultaneously continuing to improve the transparency in our supply chain by: • Collecting affidavits from every ranch from which we buy beef in order to document handling, welfare, feed, and all treatment supplementation; • Insisting upon third-party welfare and food safety audits of all slaughter and processing facilities supplying meat to Whole Foods Market; • Having our own on-the-ground inspectors who work with every organization that sells us product; and • Having an internal Quality Assurance team of industry experts who review all documents related to audits and affidavits You can learn more specifics on our extensive Farm Animal and Meat Quality Standards Program Requirements here. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/meat-poultry/qs_programrequirements.html We take our responsibility to our customers seriously and, as a result, responded to the current situation before the USDA and in a broader way. As unfortunate as this event it is, I hope our proactive stance will help our customers know that we care deeply. We take many steps and expend a great deal of effort to make sure we provide you the high-quality meat you desire. We hope you will provide us the opportunity to regain your trust.
08/13/2008 7:41:43 PM CDT
Anna and Jorge says ...
Would you please simplify what beef was recalled and what we're to do with the beef if we have the potentially contaminated beef? Thank you.
08/13/2008 9:36:51 PM CDT
Bud says ...
I love the Whole Foods experience. Thanks for your explanation and accepting responsibility.
08/13/2008 9:57:58 PM CDT
paig292 says ...
Anna and Jorge: We voluntarily recalled all ground beef purchased from our stores between June 2nd and August 6th in these states: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington D. C. and Wisconsin. We want customers who may still have ground beef that they purchased during these dates (including in the freezer) to dispose of the product and return to the store with the packaging or receipt for a full refund. Please remember that only about 5% of the 1.2 million pounds that were recalled by Nebraska Beef were sent to our stores. If you purchased ground beef elsewhere, please make sure to check with those sources as well.
08/14/2008 7:02:10 AM CDT
Susan says ...
I find it sad that ANY one should need to worry about such issues through our grocers. HOWEVER, I am a firm believer that if half of America could examine thier OWN KITCHENS for bacteria and many disease capabilities, and their OWN HANDS ~ well, truth be told we would be shamed. Our OWN kitchens and hands risk our families over and over again on a daily basis no matter HOW clean you think you are...think about it. You can touch chicken and contaminate it yourself, or beef, and never know your child or spouse has just ingested a mistake YOU made. NO, I'm NOT condoning negligent processing plants or grocers of their errors and my own family friends mean everything to me...I want them safe. I'm simply stating that many are vicious to "blame" without looking at the larger picture. Be aware, be sensible, and don't react in ways that are not beneficial to the cause. To be human is to find error, so be wise and use caution but don't go off the deep end on local grocers who have proven they try to protect us.
08/14/2008 9:17:51 AM CDT
Ashlie says ...
It is rare for a factory farm to have safe meat handling practices, that is common knowledge. To believe otherwise is naive. Even the USDA has turned their heads at the most foul of discoveries in factory farms. E. Coli on beef that came straight from the producer means that somewhere along the line someone got sloppy and mixed manure from the slaughterhouse floor with the meat (maybe dropped an entire carcass, or a leg or shoulder). By law that meat should be thrown away, but throwing away meat, be it any meat, to a large meat producing giant means losing money. They do not care about the state of your health, they care about their payload. It may be sad that consumers should constantly be worried about the state of the meats that they buy, no matter where it is bought, but it is the risk that is taken when they rely on processes they have no control over. If slaughterhouses had glass walls we'd all be vegetarian.
08/14/2008 1:36:55 PM CDT
Laura Kurth says ...
I have some ground beef in my freezer, but it says it is 'grass fed new zealand beef' does this mean there is no chance of contamination? I have been eating it for a while now and feel ok but wondering if I should throw out the 1-2 packs still in my freezer. thanks Laura
08/14/2008 1:43:43 PM CDT
TBRech says ...
I used to work in public health and track outbreaks of any and all reportable diseases and conditions. Improper food handling in processing isn't new. The inspection process is in sore need of an overhaul as evidenced by the salmonella outbreak first thought to be connected to fresh tomatoes. A grocer has only so much they can do. Right now, "good will" is the primary way suppliers share assurances. Testing is costly and mostly impractical, however that kind of control is in the hands of the FDA. I shop at Whole Foods frequently in my area. (It used to be a Wild Oats and is in transition right now.) Susan suggests that home kitchens could use some thought and she is correct. Many home cooks are woefully lax with safe food handling. Some many truly not know how to handle foods safely. Some people will not get sick when exposed to pathogens contained in contaminated foods, others do. Why? Individual health, the amount of the pathogen ingested and other factors all contribute. I commend Whole Foods for acting quickly. Condemning them for a situation which is pretty much out of their control, serves no purpose. For the consumers (like me), the key is to practice good home food hygiene, (don't cross contaminate, etc.), wash your hands frequently and cook foods (especially ground meats) to the proper temperatures. Looking forward for the new Naples Whole Foods to open in the Merchado.
08/14/2008 2:28:20 PM CDT
Phil says ...
RE: Bix --Although the word 'sorry' does not appear... they did say "we feel we have let you down" which is an appology in my opinion
08/14/2008 2:59:17 PM CDT
TBRech says ...
Had to add one more comment. I did not find any reports of a recall on either the FDA or CDC website. Wonder why. If Whole Foods is that much ahead of any recall, then they deserve a medal and the government agencies need a boot!
08/14/2008 3:08:30 PM CDT