FDA Says Whole Foods Market Repeatedly Failed to Properly Label Foods With Allergens

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

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Whole Foods Market repeatedly failed to properly label foods containing major allergens that were sold under the store's brand name over the past year, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday in a warning letter it sent to the chain and posted publicly.

The spate of mislabeled products—found primarily in the bakery and deli sections of the major supermarket chain—prompted the company to recall 32 food products between Oct. 2019 and Nov. 2020, the FDA said.

The FDA also alleged that the recent poor track record is part of a pattern at Whole Foods Market, noting that in previous years, the supermarket chain also sold foods that had to be recalled because the company failed to declare allergens on the labels.

The recalled products are no longer being sold at any of the chain's stores.

This is the first time the FDA has publicly warned a retailer for allegedly engaging in a pattern of selling store brand foods containing undeclared allergens. Foods properly labeled with their allergens are critical because there are 32 million people in the U.S. with food allergies.

"It certainly appears that Whole Foods Market is not doing its due diligence given the repeated concerns expressed by the FDA," says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. "A few isolated incidents would indicate employee errors, but a series of incidents and a pattern of behavior speaks to management problems and a corporate culture that is indifferent to consumer safety."

A spokesperson for Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, said in an email that the company is "working closely with the FDA to ensure all practices and procedures in our stores meet if not exceed food safety requirements. We remain committed to maintaining the highest quality standards in the industry."

Undeclared Allergens on the Rise

Undeclared food allergens have been the number-one leading cause of class 1 food recalls for at least the last three years, according to the FDA. The public warning announced Tuesday is part of the agency’s efforts to improve the food industry’s compliance with allergen labeling requirements.

The law requires that food or ingredients that contain one or more major food allergen must be labeled to say as much. The eight foods considered major food allergens are: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.

“Consumers deserve to know exactly what they are buying to eat and should be able to trust that the product labels clearly list all major food allergens,” William A. Correll, Jr., director of compliance at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement about the Whole Foods warning. “The entire food supply chain can and must do better to prevent exposing consumers to incorrectly labeled packaged food.”

For those with allergies, certainty about ingredients in the foods they eat is critical. When companies don’t declare major allergens, it puts "many at risk for potentially life-threatening allergic reactions," says Melanie Carver, chief mission officer of the nonprofit Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "We appreciate the FDA's oversight in enforcing food label laws and regulations to keep consumers safe."

CR's Ronholm notes that "this situation serves as a reminder that premium price points don’t guarantee that a product is safer or of higher quality. Consumers should remain vigilant about food safety and closely scrutinize their purchases, especially if they have allergies, no matter where they shop.”