Friday, January 9, 2015

What's in your food?

Whole Foods at Charles River Plaza had a nice-looking pumpkin bundt cake today which they had baked themselves. The ingredients list did not list any milk products. The allergens list did not include milk. But the chocolate fondant on the cake was made with heavy cream, as the bakery manager confirmed, so heavy cream should have been in the ingredients list and milk should have been included in the allergens list.

Once the bakery manager confirmed that the cake actually contained milk, I knew that I could not safely eat it. But I thought I should point out that the ingredients list and allergens list were both wrong, which can make people with a milk allergy or with lactose intolerance very ill.

The bakery counter person was very pleasant and had no idea why I wanted them to correct their label.

The bakery manager was very pleasant and thought that she should send a message to regional telling them that they should correct the label at some future point, while leaving the cakes out with wrong labeling.

The customer service person was very pleasant and had no idea why I wanted them to correct their label.

The store manager was very pleasant and immediately went to pull the cakes off the display until the labels could be corrected.

Everyone was very pleasant, but three out of four Whole Foods employees clearly had no idea why food products have ingredients lists.

Food products have ingredients lists so that people with food allergies, food intolerances, or medications that interact badly with certain foods can keep themselves safe. Food products have ingredients lists so that people can make conscious choices about what they eat. Food products have ingredients lists so that people can compare their possible food choices.

All of these are reasons why Whole Foods is so successful. Whole Foods offers a wide range of food products with more limited or alternative ingredients when compared to a regular supermarket’s offerings. Whole Foods touts the health benefits of various food choices. Whole Foods is designed to appeal to people who have to be careful about what they eat, or who choose to be careful about what they eat. And Whole Foods promotes and reinforces the idea that we should be careful about what we eat in every aspect of their advertising.

So when Whole Foods is sloppy about their ingredients lists, as happens with alarming frequency, Whole Foods is betraying their customers in a way that challenges the exact reason why many of those customers are Whole Foods customers in the first place.

Having common allergens missing from a food label (undeclared allergen) is a sufficient reason for food to be recalled. At the corporate level, Whole Foods knows this. But at the store level, Whole Foods desperately needs to get a clue.

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