Talk about an Achilles heel in the food safety system — and not just with meat.
It was big news when Whole Foods had to do a beef recall. The headline on the article in The Washington Post ran was descriptive: Whole Foods Recalls Beef Processed At Plant Long At Odds With USDA. But the newspaper’s blog post, The Checkout, was more blunt: Holy Cow! Whole Foods Linked to E.coli Outbreak.
This type of food safety issue is devastating for Whole Foods. Few of its customers understand the technicalities of natural and organic, but all are partners in an implicit bargain: Whole Foods will charge more but deliver the best.
Without a doubt, “best” includes safest.
Whole Foods grinds its own hamburger meat, but it purchased meat from its longtime supplier, Coleman Natural Foods, which, it seems, may have supplied contaminated meat that had been processed at Nebraska Beef, a company that has had many a food safety battle with the USDA.
Now why would Whole Foods choose to deal with a controversial company such as Nebraska Beef? It didn’t… and in the story of how it happened is a food safety issue as applicable to produce and other perishable items as it is for meat.
In its piece, Grocer Works to Repair Its Image: Whole Foods Tightens Inspection Rules After Beef Recall, the Washington Post indicated that Whole Foods is now changing procedures, including this change:
Whole Foods recalled ground beef on Friday that was sold between June 2 and August 6 after seven people in Massachusetts and two in Pennsylvania who shopped at its stores were infected by E. coli. Wittenberg said employees at distribution centers are now checking labels on all meat shipments to insure that it comes from approved processors.
We haven’t seen the contract between Whole Foods and its vendors, so the contract may have been violated by the vendor shipping product from an unapproved plant.
But Whole Foods wasn’t defrauded. Every box of product included information indicating who the processor was, yet Whole Foods had no system by which that information was checked by receiving to ensure that those processors were approved.
This is a key problem in the food safety system for fresh produce as well. Enormous efforts may go into getting QA approval to sell a chain — but there is little follow-up to make sure that the product being delivered actually comes from the farms, packing sheds and processing plants that have been approved.
This is a food safety loophole big enough to drive a tractor trailer through. Buyers had better get serious and start cross checking the origin of the product that arrives vs. approved sources. Otherwise all the attention to audits, certifications and metrics is of questionable value.