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Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
FDA cites food safety issues in a Whole Foods facility.

Whole Foods is playing defense after the FDA cited it for food safety conditions

By Chase Purdy

Whole Foods Market is assuring shoppers that its food is safe to eat following a damning letter issued by the US Food and Drug Administration over conditions in one of its food-preparation facilities, which supplies 74 stores in the northeastern United States.

The FDA warning letter was sent to the Austin, Texas-based grocery chain on June 8, and detailed more than 20 instances in which conditions inside the company’s North Atlantic Kitchen in Everett, Massachusetts, facilitated the presence of foodborne illnesses.

“Your firm failed to manufacture, package and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms and contamination,” the letter states, adding that an inspection in February found dripping water and determined that employees working without having washed their hands led to surface areas containing Listeria.

We were honestly surprised.

In response to the letter, the upscale grocery chain issued a one-paragraph statement in which it assured the public that “thorough and tangible” steps were taken to address the problems. The facility in question supplies Whole Foods stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and northern New Jersey. The company noted in its response that the FDA did not mention in its letter the efforts made by Whole Foods to fix the problems.

“We were honestly surprised,” said Ken Meyer, the company’s vice president of operations. “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.”

The food-service and restaurant industry has been particularly leery about the threat of foodborne illnesses, especially after a bout with E. coli contamination hobbled the previously high-flying Chipotle Mexican Grill.

“The company is already fighting a price perception battle and food safety has become a growing concern for consumers,” Credit Suisse analyst Edward Kelly wrote in a June 15 note to clients. “Product quality remains a key competitive advantage for [Whole Foods] and maintaining this image is critical.”