Fancy food possibly ain’t safe food: Pennsylvania Whole Foods edition

Sam Wood of writes that shoppers once chose supermarkets for convenience, cost, customer service and quick checkouts.

whole.foodsBut a recent study found 83 percent of consumers pick only retail outlets that look clean to them, according to supermarket guru Phil Lempert. A full third of the people he surveyed have turned around and fled stores that seemed less than pristine.

The Inquirer, as part of its Clean Plates project, examined two years of health department reports for large grocers in Philadelphia and Bucks County.

And though each inspection is said to be only “a snapshot in time,” some chains are more photogenic than others.

At the top of the list for cleanliness were Wegman’s and Aldi, each with near immaculate records and very few violations per inspection.

At the bottom were Shop N Bag, Fresh Grocer, and, perhaps surprisingly given its reputation for high prices, Whole Foods. Each of the chains had at least four times as many infractions (noted per inspection) as Wegman’s.

To determine the rankings, we added up the number of infractions found by the health departments and divided that by the number of inspections.

Wegman’s averaged 1.8 violations per inspection while Shop N Bag topped out at 10.

In general, most violations were corrected on the spot before the inspector left the store and the transgressions were minor, ranging from insufficient hot water to missing thermometers in refrigerated cases. Evidence of mice, both dead and alive, was also a commonly cited problem.

At Whole Foods in the city’s Fairmount section, inspectors in January found mouse droppings throughout the rear storage area. Food samples were being offered without the protection of a sneeze guard covering the food, as required. At the South Street branch last week several food items were found to be improperly refrigerated and a dead mouse was discovered in a trap in a bakery cabinet. Two more expired rodents were found in snap traps there in late November.

Mouse-droppings-in-airing-cupboardA spokeswoman said mice were more likely to be attracted to Whole Foods because the markets carry more prepared foods and fresh perishable items than others. Just as customers are drawn to those specialty items, mice are lured by the increased trash and compost created as a byproduct.

“Whenever issues are discovered, like those in Philadelphia, we take immediate action to fix the situation and provide our customers with the service and quality they expect,” said Whole Foods spokeswoman Robin Rehfield Kelly.

“Making food safe costs money,” said Donald W. Schaffner, food safety expert and a professor of microbiology at Rutgers University. “If you’re an upscale chain, you know your customers demand it. It comes through diligence and staffing.”

Schaffner said he wasn’t surprised that Wegman’s came out on top or that the others didn’t do as well.

Blaine Forkell, senior vice president of Wegman’s Pennsylvania division, said each store has a dedicated food safety coordinator and every employee, including the cashiers, receives at least an hour of food safety training.

“We don’t put profit ahead of food safety and we ask our employees to make it personal,” Marra said. “It’s an everyday way of doing business. It’s an everyday expectation from our stores.”

Listeria in spinach prompts recalls

Listeria in organic spinach has prompted at least two companies to recall frozen meals.

listeria.amy's.kitchenAmy’s Kitchen, Inc. is voluntarily recalling approximately 73,897 cases of select code dates and manufacturing codes of products.

Gluten-free, dairy-free, GMO-free in Amy’s kitchen, but maybe Listeria.

And Wegmans Organic Food You Feel Good About Just Picked Spinach (frozen), 12oz after Twin City Foods, Inc (Wegmans’ supplier) said the spinach may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Feel-good spinach, now with Listeria.

No surprises in Wegmans food safety requirements

It’s 2013, not 1998, so Bill Pool, manager of food safety for the Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, is completely accurate when he told Produce Retailer, “I don’t think any grower ought to be shocked that a retailer lettuce.skull.nororequires documentation that they have practices and procedures in place. It doesn’t make a bit of difference if it’s an organic product or a conventional product. Growers have to have some kind of baseline, some kind of minimal standards across the board.”


Now advertise those food safety requirements at retail so consumers can choose.

28 sick; multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to organic spinach and spring mix blend

CDC has now weighed in on the E. coli O157 outbreak linked to Wegman’s in New York that has sickened at least 28.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports 28 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 (STEC O157:H7) have been reported from five states, with most cases in New York.

42% of ill persons have been hospitalized. Two ill persons have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure, and no deaths have been reported.

The outbreak was initially in New York. More recently, more ill persons in other states have been reported, and the investigation has expanded.

Collaborative investigation efforts of state, local, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicate that Wegmans brand Organic Spinach and Spring Mix blend produced by State Garden of Chelsea, Massachusetts, is one likely source of this outbreak.

Four leftover packages of Wegmans brand Organic Spinach and Spring Mix blend collected from four ill persons’ homes yielded the outbreak strain of STEC O157:H7.

On November 2, 2012, Wegmans recalled 5-ounce and 11-ounce packages of Organic Spinach and Spring Mix blendproduced by State Garden, because they may be contaminated with STEC O157:H7. The products were withdrawn from the market, and shoppers were notified.

CDC recommends that consumers do not eat recalled Wegmans brand Organic Spinach and Spring Mix blend and that they dispose of any remaining product in the home or return the product to a Wegmans store location.

Other brands of pre-packaged leafy greens have been reported by ill persons outside of New York. Investigations are ongoing to determine if other contaminated leafy greens are also a source of illness in this outbreak.

This PFGE pattern has very rarely been seen before in PulseNet. It has been seen only 7 times prior to this outbreak. Illnesses that occurred after October 30, 2012 might not be reported yet due to the time it takes between when a person becomes ill and when the illness is reported.

Questions remain: why did Wegman’s issue a voluntary recall on Nov. 2, 2012, but CDC didn’t announce anything until Nov. 17, 2012 (and didn’t post it until today); was the spinach and spring mix actually produced in Massachusetts or just packaged there by State Garden and originated somewhere else; will State Garden now admit its product has been linked to illnesses after initially stating, “no illnesses have been confirmed as related to State Garden products.”

Epidemiology used to matter.

A table of leafy green related outbreaks is available at

16 sick with E. coli O157 linked to Wegmans spinach in NY

Government and industry say all the right food safety things, but in reality they’re more often like Australia – stuck in 1978.

Al Gore long ago invented the Intertubes, which even reach down under, sometimes, smartphones are ubiquitous, and every aspect of American society is continuing a centuries-long messy and muddled transition to transparency and openness, pushed more recently by Twitter and Facebook.

So why do government and the produce industry dabble in 1978-era communications, and are consistently outted by others?

I understand the New York State health department is overwhelmed at the moment, what with hurricanes and such, but with a report that 16 people are sick with E. coli O157:H7 they may want to issue a statement.

After retailer Wegmans recalled its Organic Spinach and Spring Mix because it “may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria,” on Nov. 1, 2012, the usual questions were raised. The state dept. of health told Food Safety News that yup, at least 16 people were sick with E. coli O157:H7 linked to the Wegmans spinach.

The producer, State Garden in Massachusetts, said Friday night illnesses are being investigated, but no illnesses have been confirmed as related to State Garden products.

Epidemiology used to matter.

But after the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to California spinach, the 29th outbreak linked to leafy greens and after years of warning from FDA, California growers formed the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which is supposed to have food safety performance standards. Yet the most noticeable achievement since the Agreement has been the containment cone of silence that has descended upon outbreaks involving leafy greens, and an apparent shift in policy that sets epidemiology aside and requires positive samples.

One solution to this on-going public angst is to clearly define when to go public and why;  not everyone has to agree, but at least but the basics would be out there. Bureaucrats are loath to write things down because then they have to actually do what they said they would do (sometimes).

A table of leafy green related outbreaks is available at

Fresh Anaheim peppers pulled from Wegmans on Salmonella suspicion

Wegmans has removed fresh Anaheim peppers from its Produce departments due to the possibility of salmonella contamination.  The FDA is currently investigating the situation.

If you still have Anaheim peppers, please throw them away.  Do not return them to the store.  You may go to the service desk for information on receiving a refund.

For more information, please call Wegmans Consumer Affairs at 1-800-934-6267, x-4760, Monday through Friday, 8am-5pm.

Grocers claim audits reduce foodborne illness; no evidence provided

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association came out with a whopper that no one seems to have noticed.

In a press release intended to highlight private sector initiatives to bolster food safety – which I’m all for, they make the profit, they should shoulder the burden when they make their customers barf – GMA said,

“Ultimately, wider use of third party certification/audits will reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.”

There is absolutely no evidence to support that statement.

In case there is some confusion, here is the statement in full:

Third party audits are an important part of America’s food safety net.  To ensure rigor and integrity in third party certification, policymakers and industry leaders should encourage the engagement of auditors employed by certification bodies accredited to international standards by recognized organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). … By increasing the number of well-qualified auditors and developing universal food safety auditing criteria, industry leaders and policymakers will ensure that auditors are competent to review a particular facility, discourage duplicative audits, reduce auditing costs, and encourage wider use of third party certification/audits throughout the food industry. Ultimately, wider use of third party certification/audits will reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.

I’ve been hearing such statements for 15 years, and while it sounds good, I’ve seen little evidence to back such proclamations. As I’ve written before,

The third-party food safety audit scheme that processors and retailers insisted upon is no better than a financial Ponzi scheme. The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper. Audits, inspections, training and systems are no substitute for developing a strong food safety culture, farm-to-fork, and marketing food safety directly to consumers.

If someone barfs, they’re going to go after the biggest name they can find, whether it’s a retailer or a processor. So protect that brand. Have your own people and some institutional expertise to assess food safety risks. And avoid unsubstantiated statements.

Grocers speak on food safety

I don’t really know Bob Brackett other than an annual chat when we run into each other at meetings. Years ago I started calling him the best-dressed man in food safety ‘cause he always wore a sharp suit.

Bracket started out in academia, established himself at the University of Georgia, then went to government as director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and then to industry as senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. That’s a lot of titles. And gives Bracket a credibility others can only talk about. This guy walks the talk, and has done it in various shoes.

Bracket writes in this morning’s N.Y. Times that the Grocery Manufacturers Association agrees with the Dec. 6, 2008 Times editorial that that the Food and Drug Administration should be given more resources and authority to prevent contamination of the nation’s food supplies.

Once in office, President-elect Barack Obama and his administration should commit to increasing annual food-related spending to $900 million by 2012 and should work with Congress to quickly modernize our food safety laws.

Specifically, the F.D.A. should be allowed to set and enforce safety standards for fruits and vegetables; require every food manufacturer to adopt, regularly update and make available for F.D.A. confirmation a food safety plan; and require food importers to document the steps they are taking to police their foreign suppliers.

By doing much more to prevent contamination — and by expanding and better targeting inspections — the next administration can immediately address the challenges of rising food imports and changing consumer preferences.

Good on ya.

Hepatitis A clinics cost $500,000 so far; vaccination is cheaper

WGRZ is reporting that the hepatitis A positive Wegmans’ employee has led to at least $500,000 being spent on vaccination clinics in upstate New York.

So far, more than 8,300 people have been vaccinated.

Dr. Anthony Billittier said,

"When it comes to protecting the public’s health we need to do what we need to do."

Erie County Executive Chris Collins said,

"We’ve redeployed workers out of the Rath building to go to the ECC clinic. They aren’t doing their jobs in the Rath building but we’re paying them anyway, so is it a cost for the Hepatitis clinic, yes, because when they come back their work is piling up." And they may have to work overtime to catch up.

It’s also costing taxpayers money to rents screen to give patients privacy, for the needles to inject the vaccine, and for the NFTA buses on standby to keep people waiting warm.

These hepatitis A cases are a weekly occurrence in the U.S. A food worker parties in Mexico or the Dominican where hepatitis A is endemic. Food worker comes home, is fine for two weeks, then spends the next two weeks crapping out virus. And unless food worker is really diligent about handwashing, he’s spreading virus-containing poop on food — especially fresh produce or salads. After four weeks, food worker turns yellow and goes to the doctor where a diagnosis is made. Then the clinics start.

Get vaccinated for hepatitis A. And dude, wash your damn hands.