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Whole Foods has pulled ground beef that had been supplied to it by Coleman Natural Foods from its stores in 24 states, the District of Columbia and Canada because of concerns about E. coli contamination. Seven people got sick after consuming beef purchased from its stores in Massachusetts, and two fell ill after buying ground beef from Whole Foods in Pennsylvania, but Whole Foods said that it was "broadening the voluntary recall … out of an abundance of caution.”

The affected states are Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

The implicated beef had been processed by Coleman at a plant operated by Nebraska Beef, the Omaha meatpacker that was implicated in an E. coli outbreak earlier this summer that forced the recall of more than five million pounds of beef.

The strain of E. coli identified in the Whole Foods cases is the same as that identified at Ohio’s Dorothy Lane Markets just two weeks ago; Dorothy Lane also bought its beef from Coleman Natural Foods.

And, as the Boston globe writes, this is just the latest food safety issue that has emerged in a summer that has been anything but reassuring to shoppers: “This is the third time this summer that consumers have had to worry about what's in their refrigerators. First, it was fear of tomatoes tainted with salmonella - though the culprits turned out be jalapeño peppers. Then, worries about contaminated ground beef at the Kroger grocery chain.”

At the same time, the Seattle Times reports this morning that Kroger-owned Fred Meyer “is recalling some of its ground-beef products because of potential E. coli bacteria contamination.” The company said there is no evidence of infected meat or related illnesses, but that it is doing so “because of the chance it might have been processed at or come into contact with beef from Nebraska Beef.”

While published reports say that Nebraska Beef is “under close scrutiny” by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), its facility reportedly continues to operate as internal and government probes of its operations continue.

However, the Washington Post offers a lengthy report about previous infractions at Nebraska Beef that raise questions about its commitment to food safety:

“Nebraska Beef has a contentious history with the USDA. Over the past six years, federal meat inspectors have repeatedly written it up for sanitation violations, and the company has fought back in court.

“From September 2002 to February 2003, USDA shut down the plant three times for problems such as feces on carcasses, water dripping off pipes onto meat, paint peeling onto equipment and plugged-up meat wash sinks, according to agency records.

“After the third suspension, Nebraska Beef took USDA to court, arguing that another shutdown would put the company out of business. A judge agreed and temporarily blocked the department. The USDA and the company then settled out of court and inspections resumed. However, when federal meat inspectors found more violations, Nebraska Beef sued the department and the inspectors individually, accusing them of bias. The suit was later dismissed.

“In 2004 and early 2005, Nebraska Beef ran afoul of new regulations aimed at keeping animal parts that may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, out of the meat supply. Meat processors are required to remove certain high-risk parts, such as brains and spinal cords. Between July 2004 and February 2005, federal meat inspectors wrote up Nebraska Beef at least five times for not removing spinal cords and heads, according to USDA records obtained by Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group. The company corrected the problems.

“In August 2006, federal meat inspectors threatened to suspend operations at the packing house for not following requirements for controlling E. coli. The company corrected the problem a week later, USDA records show.

“That year, Minnesota health officials blamed Nebraska Beef for sickening 17 people who ate meatballs at a church potluck in rural Minnesota. Several victims filed lawsuits against Nebraska Beef, including the family of a woman who died. The company last fall sued the church, arguing that the volunteer cooks did not cook the meatballs properly.”

KC's View:
Forget about eating meat processed by Nebraska Beef. Reading this litany of sins and accusations is enough to make anyone sick.

The government may be unable or unwilling to shut these guys down, but it seems to me that retailers have to immediately make clear that they will not be buying meat from these guys. Not now, and probably not ever. And they have to make clear to their suppliers that if they do business with Nebraska Beef, they are putting their businesses at risk. (Betcha the people at Coleman are never going to do business with Nebraska Beef again.)

Country of origin labeling? That doesn’t seem to be nearly enough. As a consumer, I now want to know where my meat was processed and packed…and while retailers can legitimately say that this isn’t their fault, even as they take responsibility with their customers, if they are to do business with Nebraska Beef in the future, then they will have greater culpability. Because they should know better.

It may be impossible for the authorities to shut down Nebraska Beef, but if the realities of the marketplace don’t catch up with the company and put it out of business, then the food industry has bigger problems than I think it has.

By the way, you should know that the moment that the folks at Dorothy Lane Market found out they had a problem and pulled the product, they also engaged in a massive outreach effort to their customers. It is my understanding that in addition to sending out emails and being completely available to the local media, staffers at Dorothy Lane made some 10,000 phone calls to customers within about 72 hours. You read that right: 10,000 phone calls.

It doesn’t surprise me that Dorothy Lane Markets would do that, because that is the kind of operation that CEO Norman Mayne always has run. He puts his customers first, always…and runs about as transparent an operation as I can imagine.

There probably are people who would have advised him not to make those phone calls, not to talk about the issue, to batten down the hatches and try to ride out the storm with as little communication to the outside world as possible. That would, of course, have been an enormous mistake…for anyone, but especially for Mayne, who never has run that kind of business.

Good lesson for any other retailer dealing with these kinds of problems.