Whole Foods Market said it has closed the Everett kitchen facility where it created ready-to-eat dishes for more than 70 of the chain’s markets in the Northeast, instead outsourcing the food preparation to a network of suppliers.
The company said the facility is one of three regional kitchens Whole Foods will shutter, and that the changes are not related to health inspections in Everett last year that revealed evidence of Listeria bacteria at the plant as well as other serious health violations. “It was a business decision,” spokeswoman Heather McCready said Tuesday. “It’s based on a movement toward streamlining operations for prepared foods.”
McCready said the company will outsource food preparation operations to suppliers that will use Whole Foods recipes to create its dishes. But she declined to name the vendors or say whether they had already begun producing food for the chain. Prepared food could include anything from chicken salad to pasta dishes to quesadillas.
The other regional kitchens slated for closure are in Landover, Md., and Roswell, Ga., she said. McCready would not say how many markets those kitchens serviced and where.
In a letter to labor department officials in Massachusetts, Whole Foods said food production in the Everett facility ended Monday and the kitchen will close permanently on March 17. The kitchen employed about 170 people who will be paid through the March closure, it said.
The company said it will also offer those employees other positions at Whole Foods markets, as well as career coaching services for those who decide to move on. “Our hope is to offer a job within the next 60 days to every single team member who wishes to continue to work,” it said.
The Austin, Texas-based company, widely credited with helping to bring about the organic food revolution, has tried to distance itself from the sanitary problems found at the Everett commissary last year. The Food and Drug Administration warned Whole Foods Markets to resolve serious violations found at the facility after inspectors discovered condensation from pipes dripping on food, as well as evidence of the bacteria Listeria.
The 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 made 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.
Whole Foods’ global vice president of operations, Ken Meyer, said in a statement at the time that he was “honestly surprised” by the warning and that the company had taken “thorough and tangible steps” to address problems.
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.”
The FDA inspectors also found a type of Listeria that indicated the presence of a more severe form of the bacteria when they tested swabs of more than 100 surfaces throughout the facility. The letter said it found Listeria welshimeri, a form of the germ 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.
The letter also cited problems with workers using improperly diluted disinfectant in heavier than necessary amounts to clean vegetables. That can leave those who eat the vegetables with serious gastric problems.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse