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The news this week that Whole Foods Market recalled ground due to contamination with E. Coli, a potentially deadly bacteria, may have been a shock to those who view the "natural" food store chain as a safe haven from the dangers that often lurk at the more conventional grocery conglomerates.

But this incident should serve as a serious wake-up call to anyone allowing the magical marketing of Whole Foods to mask the very real dangers of our meat supply, regardless of what retailer you happen to choose. The scope of the recall alone should be startling. And remember that recalls are voluntary, as the USDA has no authority to mandate them, incredible as that may sound. (See Marion Nestle's book, Safe Food.) According to one account:

Illnesses allegedly linked to ground beef from Whole Foods Market are in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The Whole Foods ground beef recall includes stores in: Alabama, Canada, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.

As the New York Times explains, the debacle was caused by the fact that the previous beef processor Whole Foods sourced from, Coleman Natural Beef, was sold to another company with shoddy practices.

After coming under new ownership, Coleman Natural began using a slaughterhouse in Omaha that had received multiple citations and had fought a long-running battle with the Agriculture Department. The government has said the plant was the source of ground beef that has sickened scores of people around the country.

Whole Foods acknowledged that a code stamped on beef packages arriving at its stores accurately reflected the change in processing plants. But the grocery chain said it had no procedures in place to watch the codes on arriving meat packages, and therefore failed to notice it was getting beef from a packing plant it had never approved.

Beyond Whole Foods' quality control (not to mention PR) problems, all of this raises broader questions about what happens as "natural" and organic food suppliers inevitably get bigger, and are bought up by larger corporations whose standards for safety and quality fall below what most shoppers paying higher prices have come to expect.

This certainly isn't the first time that a natural or organic product has been called into question. For years, groups such as the Organic Consumers Association have been complaining about enormous (allegedly organic) dairy operations such as Horizon Dairy violating organic standards.

Let's face it, raising, slaughtering, and processing animals for meat and dairy products is a very messy business. Slapping a natural or organic label on it hardly changes that biological reality. Yes, (I hear the "locavores" telling me), buying meat locally, at your farmers market if you happen to have one near by, that you can afford to shop at, does help reduce the odds of problems. But even local, "grass-fed" cattle has to be slaughtered at a USDA-approved facility. (I know, Big Brother again, but there are legitimate safety reasons for requiring certain standards, they just need to be better enforced.)

I asked Marion Nestle (who also posted to her blog this morning on this) for her thoughts, and here's what she told me:

What everyone—even Whole Foods—needs to understand is that the United States does not have a farm-to-table food safety system.  Until we do, we really have nobody minding the food safety store. What I don’t get is how many of these incidents have to happen—and how many people have to get sick—before Congress takes some action. In my most cynical moments, I think that we will never have a decent system of food safety oversight until some powerful senator has a close family member who gets sick or dies from eating contaminated food. It's not that we don’t know how to do food safety. We do. It’s just that the political barriers can’t seem to be budged.

But we can't wait for Washington DC to clean up the food system (we've already been waiting for decades) so we have to take matters into our own hands. Eating ground beef is like playing Russian roulette. Even if you don't want to stop eating meat altogether, stick with others. Ground beef carries additional risks from the processing, especially for children who are susceptible to infection. And it doesn't matter how it's labeled, or how expensive it is, or what fancy store you buy it from.

Originally posted to Michele Simon on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 08:23 AM PDT.

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