Whole Story

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The Safety of Meat at Whole Foods Market

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.

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Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@CECE - We sell options for packaged meats and we have a strict standard on the ingredients used for processing. We do not allow any artificial preservatives or flavors, such as MSG, and prohibit synthetically-manufactured nitrates and nitrites according to our Quality Standards. For more information about our Quality Stands, visit http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/about-our-products/quality-standards.

Nina Zhang says …

Today I brougt short ribs from wholefood store in Lake grove, NY. And I spend 1 hour to cook them. Before I cook it, I smell something weired from the meat. After 1 hour cooking, I taste the meat, found out the meat is bad. This is my only dish tonight, and I am so disappointed!

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@NINA - I'm so sorry to hear about this. Definitely let the store know where you purchased these so they can help make this right for you!

deb says …

Good Morning, this may be slightly off topic, but in reading the above and having read up on on the Whole Foods 5 Step Process, I do not see where slaughterhouses are addressed, with the exception of food safety levels noted above. The 5 Step Process is a fantastic creation and I think the horrible animal treatment and conditions at slaughterhouses needs to be addressed. Is this captured in your 5 Step Process audit? As an individual struggling to purchase meat in which the animal was handled humanely its entire life, from field to plate, I was hoping for some further assurement that only 'humane' slaughterhouses are employed. Thank you for your time.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@DEB - Yes, we require all slaughter facilities to successfully pass annual third party audits of their animal welfare and food safety practices.