The Food and Drug Administration has warned Whole Foods Markets to resolve serious violations found at a regional food preparation facility in Everett after inspectors discovered condensation from ceiling pipes dripping on food, as well as evidence of the germ Listeria.
Last week, the federal agency sent a lengthy letter to Whole Foods citing an extensive list of food safety violations during multiple visits in February to the company’s kitchen in Everett, which makes ready-to-eat foods for 74 stores in Northeastern states.
The agency said Whole Foods’ initial response to the violations was unacceptable because the company did not offer sufficient documentation about how it would correct the problems at the 70,000-square-foot facility and ensure compliance with health and safety rules.
“FDA has serious concerns that our investigators found your firm operating under these conditions,” according to the June 8 warning letter, which was first reported by Bloomberg.
Whole Foods’ global vice president of operations, Ken Meyer, said in a statement issued Tuesday evening that he was “honestly surprised” by the warning and that the company has taken “thorough and tangible steps” to address problems. “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,” Meyer said.
FDA inspectors who visited the Everett plant, known as Whole Foods Market North Atlantic Kitchen, wrote that they saw condensation dripping onto surfaces where dishes such as pesto pasta and mushroom quesadillas were being prepared or stored, as well as uncovered barrels of egg salad “that were placed in an area below the condenser. Condensate was observed to be dripping at a rate of approximately once per second.”
The FDA inspectors also found a type of Listeria that indicated the presence of a more severe form of the germ when they tested swabs of more than 100 surfaces throughout the facility. The letter said it found Listeria welshimeri, a form of the bacteria that the FDA said is an indicator of the probable presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially deadly form of the bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is a particular threat to pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.
In one instance, the inspectors found that a hand-washing station did not have hot water, yet was used by employees returning from a break before they began preparing food. Inspectors also said they saw an employee spray ammonium-based sanitizer on an open colander of salad greens and found sheet pans used for raw meats and ready-to-eat food products soaking in tanks with inadequate levels of sanitizer.
The letter further cited problems with workers using improperly diluted disinfectant in heavier than necessary amounts to clean vegetables.
Whole Foods has 15 business days to respond to the FDA’s letter.
The Everett facility warning is a blow for a company that is generally known for the pride it takes in high-quality products, which typically come with a high price tag. The Austin, Texas based chain is also widely credited with helping to bring about the organic food revolution.
One of the most worrisome findings, said Mel Kramer, president of EHA Consulting Group Inc., a Baltimore firm that advises restaurants and food manufacturers on food safety, was the inattention to how vegetables were washed. The use of too much disinfectant, he said, can lead to serious gastric problems such as diarrhea.
“This is pretty serious from a major company that the public generally looks to as a good actor,” said Kramer, who said he had reviewed the FDA warning letter at the request of the Globe. “An inspection is a picture, and the picture during those inspections was pretty poor.”
FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said the agency could not disclose what prompted the Everett inspection. The FDA is tasked with monitoring food intended for interstate commerce under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Sucher said she could not say how often the agency and its regional offices inspect facilities because those decisions are made and adjusted during the year and depend on a variety of factors, such as a company’s prior history of compliance and risks associated with a specific commodity.
A Whole Foods distribution center near Denver was issued at least one similar warning letter by the FDA in March 2014, according to the agency’s website.
“Your tuna, sardines, anchovy, mackerel, bluefish, mahi-mahi, and wahoo are adulterated, in that they have been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health,” the letter said.
The Everett warning also comes seven months after Whole Foods voluntarily recalled products prepared and packaged in the same Everett kitchen facility, including curry chicken salad and classic deli pasta salad, after a routine inspection found possible Listeria contamination of the life-threatening sort, according to a list of product recalls posted on the FDA’s website.
Food safety problems have also plagued other Boston supermarkets. In April, the city of Boston shuttered a Roxbury Stop & Shop when workers failed to address unsanitary conditions in the store that included a mouse infestation. A subsequent Globe review of Boston food safety inspection data found that markets throughout the city had hundreds of violations, big and small, including 127 at the Whole Foods on Cambridge Street near Beacon Hill.