“My promise to our customers has always been the same: to consistently provide the industry’s
highest quality, best tasting beef with a commitment to environmentally sound practices, humane
animal treatment and personal integrity. I stand behind this commitment the best way I know
— by putting my name on everything we sell.”
- Robert E. Meyer, Founder and Owner, Meyer Natural Angus
So did Meyer Natural Angus live up to those words?
The company has been at the center of a hamburger recall at Whole Foods Markets. The beef in question was sold under the Coleman Natural brand -- a storied name that pioneered the natural meat business in this country but which has been sold at least twice and now is associated with tainted meat.
Coleman, to my knowledge, never had an e coli recall under its previous ownership. I interviewed Mel Coleman Jr. -- son of the founder -- and my impression was that food safety, as with no antibiotics and hormones, was at the forefront of its concerns.
So what happened? Meyer Natural Angus bought Coleman's beef business in April, leaving the Coleman company with its other meat and poultry operations. Just a few months earlier, Meyer Natural Angus had bought Laura's Lean Beef Co., another natural beef company in the East.
Meyer then switched slaughtering operations to the infamous Nebraska Beef plant that had received multiple citations from the Agriculture Department and which has had two recalls of ground beef this summer. (More background on the plant and what happened in a Washington Post article here.)
The Times pointed out that "most of the beef was sold at grocers other than Whole Foods and recalled this summer. An additional 1.2 million pounds were recalled on Friday by the processor after illnesses in several states were tentatively linked to ground beef sold at Whole Foods and other stores."
What's surprising is that Whole Foods didn't know Meyer Natural Angus had switched processing plants. This isn't a simple oversight, since Whole Foods has long audited the slaughterhouse facilities from which it is supplied. To switch plants without being informed would undermine its quality control system (and potentially its protocols on humane animal treatment). As the Times said:
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.
The recall comes at a particularly bad time for the natural and organic retailer, which is facing a double-whammy of slower growth and a renewed FTC investigation into its purchase of Wild Oats. It also comes just as Whole Foods rolls out of its humane meat ratings program -- on which it has been working for at least five years.
Past food safety incidents have shown that concentration increases the risk of tainted food -- in this case, in a processing plant with a known history of e. coli recalls and at a fast-growing meat company integrating multiple acquisitions. Indeed, it's difficult to see how Meyer Natural Angus could have hoped to stay true to its words while relying on Nebraska Beef for processing.