The Checkout

Holy Cow! Whole Foods Linked to E. coli Outbreak

To bring you up to speed, news broke over the weekend that Whole Foods Market has been swept up in Nebraska Beef's second beef recall of the summer.

[Full disclosure: the hub used to work at a Whole Foods many years ago selling cheese and we spend copious amounts of money there every week, especially on Mum-Mums]

Nebraska Beef, an Omaha meat packer, has been linked to two separate outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 in the past two months. The first triggered a ground beef recall by Kroger's supermarkets. The second outbreak kicked off a ground beef recall by Dorothy Lane Market, a small chain in Ohio. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider these two separate outbreaks because they involve two genetically distinct strains of O157:H7.

Whole Foods initiated the recall after Massachusetts health officials investigating a cluster of E. coli illnesses discovered all seven victims had bought meat at Whole Foods. The chain pulled ground beef from some of its stores on Wednesday. The Nebraska Beef recall was announced late Friday night.

My colleague Ylan Mui and I have gotten some comments from people who noted that the natural food chain is telling folks no contaminated Whole Foods meat has been found yet and we reported that in our story on Sunday. But before anyone is lulled into some false sense of security, there is other microbiological evidence linking Whole Foods to the outbreak.

The strain found in the Whole Foods customers matches the strain found in the Dorothy Lane customers and the one found in a sample of Nebraska Beef meat, according to USDA. Dorothy Lane and Whole Foods both bought meat from Coleman Natural Foods which temporarily used Nebraska Beef to process its meat.

Also, most recalls these days are based on epidemiological evidence. If public health people waited for microbiological proof in every case, many more people would get sick before they got around to alerting consumers. This was part of the dilemma the Food and Drug Administration faced when calling tomatoes as the source of the salmonella outbreak.

I think the main reason why people are so sensitive about the Whole Foods' recall is the fact that they pay more money believing that the products sold there have gone through some vetting process before hitting the shelves. And Whole Foods does have standards for its products, including its meat.

Some people also assume that the foods there are safer--as well as at farmer's markets or Uncle Joe's farm--from a pathogen standpoint because they "know" the cow or believe the person or store selling meat to them does. But food safety experts say that that assumption might be dangerous.

If you don't believe me, check out a Consumer Reports story that ran last year. CR tested various chickens, including organic ones, for campylobacter and salmonella. The report titled Dirty Birds .
found that the organic variety had just as much campylobacter and more salmonella as the conventional broilers.

I am posting this after lunch so I don't ruin it for you!

By Annys Shin |  August 11, 2008; 11:54 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Maybe it's not any safer, but at least you know where you got it. On a side note if everything wasn't coated with anti-bacterial this and injected with growth hormones maybe a normal person could resist the common cold. Who knows maybe even resist these kinds of problems. From my standpoint on a side note the current raw milk issue is a good example of something natural being reduced by the science of preserving.

Posted by: Isaac C | August 11, 2008 1:43 PM

That's great Isaac. Nothing like sticking your head in the sand.

Posted by: Give_Me_A_Break | August 11, 2008 1:57 PM

go vegan.

Posted by: brendan | August 11, 2008 2:01 PM

Wow, Whole Foods? And I paid dearly for my E Coli Ground Beef.

Posted by: latinovoter | August 11, 2008 2:02 PM

I totally agree with Isaac C. I would also encourage people to read The Omnivore's Dilemma which sheds some light on factory farming.

Posted by: Mary H | August 11, 2008 2:02 PM

Isaac is right. Who cares about safety? We're much better off eating things from places we know that places we don't, even if they are toxic. If only they weren't using so many antibiotics, we would be invulnerable, and it wouldn't matter.

Posted by: Mike N | August 11, 2008 2:02 PM

This is why i am a vegetarian.

Posted by: Lily | August 11, 2008 2:08 PM

I'm certain there is solid science to back up those heady claims Isaac. Are you an immunologist, or just play one on TV?

Posted by: Griff | August 11, 2008 2:08 PM

My wife and I have shopped at Whole Foods ever since the NYC Union Square store opened. Over that time we have had occasions where something we purchased was not up to our standards. As it turned out, thse products were not up to Whole Foods standards either as every item ever returned was refunded immediately, without question. To ask that Whole Foods (or any other food retailer) check every single shipment of foodstuffs for contamination is just not realistic.

We all try to live as contaminant free in as many aspects of our lives as possible. Whole Foods tries to bring us the best products possible 100% of the time. I for one feel that they deserve a break if something gets past them because their track record is excellent and because they at least try.

Posted by: Rob H. | August 11, 2008 2:11 PM

Can I remind you all that going vegan is not safe either. Look at all of the cases of e-coli and samonella from produce. We need tougher food standards for everyone's safety.

Posted by: Kelly B. | August 11, 2008 2:11 PM


who cares about side notes

Posted by: idiot a | August 11, 2008 2:13 PM

No matter how much you 'vet' a food product, there will always be a chance of infectious pathogen. It's just one of the many risks of... eating! However, e-coli contaminated beef is of extra concern even for the 'normal' individual that Issac C refers to, especially if the person eats hamburgers and any type of ground beef product. So what can we do? How about some old fashion safe food preparation techniques? Don't use the same knife for meat and veggies. Cook things thoroughly especially ground meat, and keep your surfaces clean. Expecting the food industry to defeat organisms that's been around far longer than we have (genetic strains come and go, but the pathogen is nothing new) is wishful thinking at best, and potentially a pain in the...

Posted by: Andy | August 11, 2008 2:14 PM

I eat anything, anytime. Rule of thumb: if it smells or tastes too bad, to the compost bin it goes; otherwise, it's a go, printed "best before date" be darned. All I know is that I get stomach cramps when people are out 3 days for food poisoning, eating at the same event. I give credit to a good set of genes and all the "gut training" I get from eating moldy, raw cheese and other "horrors".

Posted by: swamp frog | August 11, 2008 2:14 PM

no. you are a vegetarian for some far flung political reason and your circles of moral worth are backwards. or maybe you are just a horrible shot. eat a steak every once in a while. it will help with your anaemia.

Posted by: dt | August 11, 2008 2:16 PM

I wish vegans, vegetarians, whatever, would STFU. I don't mind that you follow whatever dietary direction you want but I hate the fact that these people keep throwing it up in my face like they are some "holier than thou" saints. Keep your hands off my stomach!

Posted by: Ram | August 11, 2008 2:18 PM

La Cense Beef is a 100% grass-fed beef company out of Montana. I buy all my beef from them. They actually raise the cattle in their own ranch and the product is delicious.
I stopped buying beef elsewhere once my sister told me about La Cense Beef.

They are even running a grass fed party campaign which I thought was pretty clever.

Posted by: Alice | August 11, 2008 2:19 PM

Nothing against vegans, but going vegan wouldn't have helped against the tomato/chili/anything-you-make-salsa-with warning from a few months ago...Things like this always make me think of the song "Disgustipated" by Tool:
"Angel of the Lord, what are these tortured screams?"
And the angel said unto me,
"These are the cries of the carrots,
the cries of the carrots. You see, reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day and to them it is the holocaust."

Posted by: entrekken | August 11, 2008 2:20 PM


This is probably throwing fuel on fire but I think you mean anorexia not anemia (or anaemia if you're brit). Even at extreme starvation, hematopoesis should be unaffected and therefor no anemia. BTW, I eat meat, put down the pitchfork and noose...

Posted by: Andy | August 11, 2008 2:23 PM

Do not confuse bad sanitation practices of processors with the production of hormone and antibiotic free meat.

It does not matter one whit how anyone grew the meat if the processing is done in an unsanitary manner.

however, raw milk puts both the production and the sanitation factors in one person. Meat is only contaminated by external sources but raw milk can be contaminated by both the health of the animal as well as the milking and production process.

consumers of raw milk should consider they are facing twice the risk.

Posted by: rick myers | August 11, 2008 2:24 PM

In Sunday's news, Whole Foods was issuing the recall and commented that their ground beef supplier had not informed them that Nebraska Beef was processing the meat. WF should be given credit for the immediate recall and be allowed to deal with their suppliers.

Posted by: mjw | August 11, 2008 2:31 PM

If you want safe you either cook hamburger to 160 degrees or buy irradiated.

Since cooking to 160 degrees does not happen all the time, unless you cook or check the temperature of your hamburger you are taking a chance, unless it is irradiated.

NASA uses irradiated food from FOOD TECHNOLOGY SERVICES(VIFL).

Posted by: Lloyd | August 11, 2008 2:32 PM


"This was part of the dilemma the Food and Drug Administration faced when calling tomatoes as the source of the salmonella outbreak."

bateria lives and thrives on both meats and veggies. not your NOT any safer eating one over the other.

Posted by: Red Anderson | August 11, 2008 2:33 PM

Of course Irradiated meat or anything else is a no no to all good environmentalists. Forget the fact that Irradiation is safe and would almost completely remove the dangers of E Coli. We just can’t do it because of some uneducated group dictating what policies should be because of some irrational fear.

Posted by: Lee | August 11, 2008 2:43 PM

LOL nice flaming, i'm just saying bigger isn't always better. I grew up on a small dairy farm and we drank raw milk everyday. We didn't have problems with bacteria. Everything these days is let's mass produce, let's inject chemicals to make it grow faster. Our age is soo much better because of science. The FDA is a joke tell me 1 time you have picked up a paper this week and not seen seen something related to there failings.

They pass so many drugs that in a few months are recalled because of major problems. Sure it stops your allergies just watch out for possible bleeding, heart attack, birth defects and the like. So lol to the industrialization of science.

Posted by: Isaac C | August 11, 2008 2:49 PM

Posted by: Anonymous | August 11, 2008 3:00 PM

Posted by: Anonymous | August 11, 2008 3:03 PM

Powerful antibiotics are used routinely in animal food. Industrial livestock production generates massive quantities of animal manure containing antibiotic resistant organisms. It is difficult to dispose of 1.4 billion tons of feces. Some of it is actually fed back to animals, partly because of its 'nutrient' content, partly because feeding it to animals is a way of disposing of it. That practice increases the risk of spreading lethal organisms like hemorrhagic e coli.
Check out this link:

Posted by: D Johnson | August 11, 2008 3:18 PM

Wait a minute, wait a minute here... In your last couple paragraphs you say farmers market meat may not be safer based on a Consumer Reports survey/investigation of organic chickens. That's apples and oranges, sir. Farmers market meat doesn't have to be organic and I doubt the CR investigation used meat from a farmers market. Know your farmer, know your food does work. And grass fed beef is even safer - according to Cornell University research, grass feeding beef makes it significantly less likely to spawn e.coli.
More later.

Posted by: Michael B. in Omaha | August 11, 2008 3:21 PM

I believe that the point being made is that wheather your beef comes from Whole Foods, my cousin’s market or any other large chain the price should not be extraordinarily higher if is the same beef . Those of you who believe that Whole Foods carries “healthier” products are just getting a free lesson of an amazing “marketing strategy” that turned the same beef we eat every day into a fashion and health statement. The fact is that at Whole Foods in "most" items you pay more for the same quality found anywhere else, and they can as in this case have problems like every one else.

Posted by: Nene | August 11, 2008 3:28 PM

Gah, I'm with Kelly and Ram. The traditional source of e coli in the diet is vegetables grown in or near compost. The most serious outbreak in recent years involved cider from orchards that deer got into. And of course there was that little Salmonella thing with chile peppers and salsa. There's reason the Chinese don't ever eat raw vegetables.

Eating is dangerous. Not eating is worse. Sanitation and cooking both mitigate risk, for vegatables and meat alike.

I buy my ground beef from a shop that grinds it in-house. I figure there's less risk if they grind it in batches of hundreds of pounds rather than in batches of thousands of pounds. With meat, the danger is mostly in the surface, and ground meat is mostly surface.

Posted by: puzzlegal | August 11, 2008 3:37 PM

Sadly I'm not surprised by this recall in light of the problems I've had with buying meat from WF in the past. The last time I bought their "fresh" chicken from them I literally opened it up in the parking lot because of past problems with them and checked it... it smelled like it had been rotting in their counter for days. This just after their guy who handles the meats was bragging all about how he can tell when chicken is fresh and he could give his solemn word that the chicken WAS indeed fresh.

I immediately took it back in... and no their management does not always refund with a smile. The guy smelled it himself and basically said, "So?" He still refunded it but not without my having to get cranky. We now buy our meats from another health store chain out here or from local meat markets.

We're hoping all these recalls don't eventually start cropping up in buffalo. That seems to be about the only "safe" meat anymore.

Posted by: Pavitra | August 11, 2008 3:42 PM

the problem isn't with how the beef is raised, but how it is slaughtered and processed. You can have a perfect cow, turn it over to a slaughterhouse/processor who gives their workers 90 seconds to completely process an entire cow... and you are gonna have problems. those places are horror shows. WF's ground beef supplier "temporarily" used Nebraska Beef to process it's beef (for whatever reason), and so the product was contaminated. If we have more than 13 FDA inspectoirs for the entire country, we might be able to enforce some of the laws that are in place to help prevent this. Also, when huge slaughterhouses decide that the quality of the product and the safety of their workers is more important that the three cents they gain by forcing workers to work at the very edge of their limit, then things might chance. but not before. Everybody knows ground beef is the most likely to be contaminated because of what it is made up from, all the scraps that have been lying around. buy a grinder, by independently slaughtered beef and grind your own.

Posted by: Kelli G in CA | August 11, 2008 3:45 PM

In his new book, Michael Pollan says "shake the hand that feeds you." I now shake hands with the producers--all within 100 miles of my home--who raise the beef, pork, chicken and fish I feed my family. I know how their animals lived, and how their lives ended. I still shop for other things at Whole Foods, but I'm going to think twice in the light of this problem.

Posted by: Virginia | August 11, 2008 3:48 PM

Just another reason to go vegan.

Posted by: robin | August 11, 2008 3:50 PM

to all the vegans - "If God didn't want me to eat cows, why did he make them out of steak?"

Posted by: Carnivore | August 11, 2008 4:00 PM

Whole Foods so called standards and certification is nothing but a hype and some glorified testimonials that have no value or authenticated by any agency or organization. It is more like expensive advertisement to lure the gullible rich like minded misled idiots, who believe whole Foods is better then others. Pure simple perception and false advertisement created for profits.

The the FDA and USDA have nothing but political patronage hacks that run the system and the lobbyists of the beef industry bankrolling the conservative republican campaign. Hopefully come election time all these SOBs will be sick with E Coli.

Posted by: winemaster2 | August 11, 2008 4:10 PM

Watching the FDA trip over its own clumsy self while groping for answers on Salmonella is a sad affair. Following the FDA-encouraged destruction of tens of millions of dollars of perfectly good tomatoes, this confused, bewildered agency admits that tomatoes may not have been the problem after all, and it has now set its sights on destroying the peppers industry. Is there no vegetable safe from the destruction of the FDA?

Tomatoes don't harbor salmonella, by the way. Neither do peppers, onions, cilantro or spinach. Salmonella only festers in factory-farmed animals, folks, and that means the real source of contamination is no doubt some animal factory upstream from the vegetable processing centers. So why isn't the FDA going after the animal factories that likely caused this whole fiasco? Because making Americans scared of their vegetables is a great way to advance the FDA's food irradiation agenda which would destroy virtually all the medicinal phytonutrients in plants.

As intelligent, informed consumers are now discovering to their own dismay, the FDA appears to be purposely dragging its feet on this food safety crisis, milking the fear for political gain just like President Bush after 9/11. Fear is a powerful tactic for pushing an agenda that the People would otherwise refuse to accept, and since most Americans are strongly opposed to food irradiation, the FDA is more than happy to drag out this salmonella issue as a way to make American consumers increasingly afraid of fresh vegetables.

Posted by: Greg | August 11, 2008 4:11 PM

The answer to all the vegans' problems lies between my legs.

Posted by: Bad Taste | August 11, 2008 4:14 PM

While ethanol production has surged over the last few years, pushing the cost of feed corn higher, cattle producers have started to use a by-product of ethanol production in livestock and poultry feed. This by-product is called distiller’s grain (DGs) and it is presently a common practice to replace a percentage of corn based livestock and poultry feed with DGs.
Researchers at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine conducted multiple studies over the last 2 years to assess the effects of distiller’s grain on beef cattle. What they found has led to questions regarding the increased incidence of E. coli 0157 outbreaks this year.
The studies found that beef cattle fed a diet consisting of 25% distillers grain experienced a "ten fold increase in the incidence of e.coli 0157" as measured in the animals' manure.
This shows there is an association between the increased use of distiller's grain in animal feed and a spiraling incidence of E.coli contaminated ground beef.

Cows should not be eating grains or corn in the 1st place.

Regardless of what store it is sold in, can you TRULY trust any food companies or even your own government anymore?

no way.

Posted by: Greg | August 11, 2008 4:25 PM

Mr. Anderson is completely correct; vegetables and fruits can carry E. coli or any other myriad of germs that meat can. Germs are not decisive; they will grow where the conditions are correct; E. coli has been seen growing in ground soil, it isn’t fickle.
All-natural foods have not been proven, through peer reviewed or rigorous testing to be better for human consumption then ordinary food. If you cook your meat correctly, most hormones or antibiotics should breakdown in the heat, IF these chemicals are even present in the meat. These chemicals are administered by the weight of the subject, just giving the animal more-then-necessary hormones or antidote would be wasteful spending. The administered hormones and antidote will be metabolized by the animal and/or removed by the liver and kidneys; there should no residual of these chemicals in the meat.
Yes, our FDA does fail us today because it is skint. From the point it was created up to the 80's it did a great job, even was a model for other countries. Today, it is one of the most severely underfunded departments and cannot patrol our food processing companies like they once did. If we want them to quit failing we need to give them more money so they can do their job correctly.

Posted by: Roma H. | August 11, 2008 4:41 PM

Amen Greg. We must we the same news. BTW people so against veganism, not all are vegan because they are or want to be a part of PETA, it can be for health reasons, or because they would rather have no meat instead of "polluted" meat, and/or have a passion for the environment...I have small children that I would like to pass a world on to...if it all doesn't really end in 2012!

Posted by: LuLu | August 11, 2008 4:43 PM

Hahhaahahahah ... I love it. Tainted beef at Whole Foods. Welcome to the club boys, you're no better than the corner fast food hamburger joint.

Posted by: Random_Comment_Guy | August 11, 2008 5:03 PM

Gas is too high, I got rid of my car. Animal products are sick, I stopped eating meats. Unfortuately, I won't be able to stop breating the air or drinking the water. Good work BIG BUSINESS and LOBBISTS!

Posted by: Brian | August 11, 2008 5:35 PM

I am not a veggie, just a person who boycots meats and farmed fish. I find so many other foods more enjoyable then the smell of roasting flesh while driving down the street. Have a potato, Potato-Head.

Posted by: Brian | August 11, 2008 5:43 PM

Go grass-fed/grass-finished, i.e. grain-free meat.
A study by Cornell University has determined that grass-fed animals have far fewer E. coli (approx. 300 times less) than their grain fed counterparts. Also in the same study, the amount of E. coli they do have is much less likely to survive our first line defense against infection, stomach acid. This is because feeding cattle grain makes their digestive tract abnormally acid, and over time, the 'bad E. coli' has become acid-resistant . So if we ingest them in our food a large number of them can potentially survive our stomach acid and go on to grow in our gut, causing an infection

Posted by: home on the range | August 11, 2008 6:10 PM

I went into a deli today and bought a 'cluck-u', chicken and bacon and Romaine and honey mustard. It was just great to order it by name. Tomorrow, I'm going to buy their 'angry electrician' which is ground something on a something with something.

Posted by: brimac | August 11, 2008 6:26 PM

What is wild is I used to live in that area, and would shop that market in Kettering very often. Now I live in Omaha, seems idiocy to send beef that far when there are such better closer choices that would not only insure less contamination, but a cheaper product due to less shipping it all over the country first.

Posted by: FreshMeatz | August 11, 2008 7:28 PM

For years (maybe 25 or 30 years) the government has been saying to not eat pink or rare ground beef. Why? Because it sometimes falls on the floor and falls in a pool of you know what and then is ground. So, cook your ground beef well done. That is what I do.

I remember years ago, that resturants were supposed to serve only well done hamburgers. But lately, the resturants ask you, "How do you want it cooked?"

Posted by: LL314 | August 11, 2008 9:07 PM

For years (maybe 25 or 30 years) the government has been saying to not eat pink or rare ground beef. Why? Because it sometimes falls on the floor and falls in a pool of you know what and then is ground. So, cook your ground beef well done. That is what I do.

I remember years ago, that resturants were supposed to serve only well done hamburgers. But lately, the resturants ask you, "How do you want it cooked?"

Posted by: LL314 | August 11, 2008 9:09 PM

Hi lily!

Screw you ram!

Posted by: joker | August 12, 2008 1:14 AM

This is why I cooked my food. Cooking kills bacteria.

Posted by: lamac66 | August 12, 2008 6:46 AM

From the website (where I get my grass-fed beef and raw cheese)...

"What is the E.coli risk with grass-finished beef?

Grass-finished beef has a minimal risk compared to grain-fed beef due to the difference in epigastric pH in the two diets. Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the stomach, which the E.coli bacteria need to survive. Forage based animals maintain pH's near 7 which severely retards the environment for ecoli 157. ALWAYS COOK GROUND BEEF UNTIL NO PINK REMAINS. Our beef is the best, but never take a chance with your family's health by serving undercooked meat, we don't."

I think the more we are aware of our own responsibilities as consumers to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families the better.

P.S. Best of luck to Deena Kastor!!! Go for the gold!

They always respond to my email questions too-

Posted by: Debbie | August 12, 2008 10:58 PM

Where's ram? Any more pointless rants with profanity? Get off the can you loser!

Posted by: I hate the joker | August 12, 2008 11:43 PM

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