With an eye on the food allergy community as a unique group of consumers since 2008, we're on a quest to find and share ways to continue enjoying the good things in life.

03 September 2008

An Open Letter to Whole Foods Market

Dear Whole Foods Market,

In your stores around Boston and other towns in Massachusetts, you sell slices of cakes made by Cafe Indigo of New Hampshire. The cake is excellent, but there is a problem with the labeling. And when it comes to food allergies, it is not an insignificant problem.  For those with food allergies, an accurate label can mean the difference between life and death.  

The package for the cake slices bears two, conflicting labels. One label says "Made in a nut-free facility". The other label reads "This item is produced in a facility where various types of nuts, peanuts and/or tree nuts are used."  Apparently, the bakery where the cake is baked does not use tree nuts or peanuts. The cakes are delivered as sheet cakes to Whole Foods. Whole Foods slices the cake and repackages each slice individually for sale.  

What if, through human error, the cake becomes cross-contaminated when it is sliced and repackaged? What if a nut-allergic person only reads the one label stating "Made in a nut-free facility" and not the Whole Foods label which bears the warning "This item is produced in a facility where various types of nuts, peanuts and/or tree nuts are used"? What if said nut-allergic person purchases and eats that fluke cross-contaminated cake and has a reaction?  This is extremely dangerous for nut-allergic and peanut-allergic individuals.

In June, I placed a call to the Food Protection Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health followed by an email detailing this saga, complete with photos of the contradictory labels.  We thought the problem had been corrected.  But on Saturday, August 30, we found chocolate cake slices from the same bakery with 2 contradictory labels again.  I have contacted the Food Protection Program to alert them again today.  I am deeply disturbed that this problem has not been corrected.  I worry that this labeling problem may be present at every one of your locations where Cafe Indigo cake slices are sold.  

In the food allergy community, Whole Foods is known as a store which offers more options than the typical supermarket.  In my opinion, while Whole Foods may carry a greater variety of food allergy friendly products, it seems little care is taken when it comes to bakery items, potential for cross-contamination, and labeling.  And these are issues of critical importance in the safety and health of food allergic individuals.  I believe that food allergic individuals should not be misled to risk their health, well-being, even their lives, because of the evidently poor practices at Whole Foods.

Jennifer B
Food Allergy Buzz

*The above letter is dated September 3, 2008.  I received a telephone call from the Bakery Coordinator of Whole Foods Market's North Atlantic Region on September 10, 2008, which provided explanation of what went wrong at Whole Foods and how the problem has been corrected.  For more details, please see my September 10 post, Allergen Labeling Update: Whole Foods Responds.


Anonymous said...

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Jenny said...

Hey, Jen, it must be time for letter writing this week. I just shot off an e-mail to a local newspaper that had a very offensive "Bring Back the Good Ol' Peanut Butter" feature story that implied parents of allergic kids are all whack jobs.

Thanks for writing to Whole Foods and keep us posted on this. It is a crazy labeling situation to be sure--where's the quality control???

Christine said...

Hi Jennifer,

Our Whole Foods does a great job with labeling everywhere except the bakery. In theory they have some bread that I could try, but others that are clearly dusted with corn meal for texture. The visible "harmless sprinkle" of corn makes it onto about 65% of the ingredient lists. Yikes!

Keep up the good work!

Thom said...

Here's a tip - bake for yourself and don't buy your baked goods at a grocery store. You'll develop a skill and be able to control the exact ingredients that go in your food.

Besides, nothing beats homemade.

I don't suffer from food allergies, but I can understand the concern. That said, I work in an education environment, and the way things are going, I am going to only be able to drink filtered, de-ionized water and eat nothing more than gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free, organic pasta shapes made in said water.

I do appreciate the public health issue you have addressed, but at what point does personal responsibility for what you ingest take a front seat over the responsibility of the grocer who supplies your food?

Unknown said...

Amy, Christine, and Jenny, thanks for your kind words.

Welcome, Thom. I see you hail from the U.K.

Here in the U.S., our Food and Drug Administration has allergen labeling requirements for the 8 most common food allergens. Those allergens are: eggs, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Therefore, a cake slice bearing two conflicting labels pertaining to peanut and nuts--2 of the top 8 allergens--presents a legal problem as well as a potential health problem. In fact, the labeling did not meet federal or state food labeling requirements. Of course, you are free to disagree with the current U.S. and state labeling requirements, but the grocer has to follow the law. This particular story does not address personal responsibility on the part of any consumer because the labeling error was made by Whole Foods, not a consumer.