Kombucha Recall: Why Did Whole Foods Remove Kombucha?
Last Thursday, June 17th, Whole Foods pulled down all of the Kombucha from their shelves. Citing a concern about levels of more than 0.5% alcohol in the drink, Whole Foods across the country have had their shelves stripped bare of the fermented tonic and the company has been talking with suppliers "to review potential labeling issues for a swift resolution."
The reason for the yank is because any drinks with an alcohol content over 0.5% need to come strapped with a government warning label. Even though Whole Foods says they don't know exactly how much alcohol content the Kombucha in question contains, they aren't taking any chances.
The Associated Press reports that dozens of manufacturers have voluntarily pulled their products while WFM reviews the situation. When and if you go looking for Kombucha at Whole Foods you'll find a sign saying this: "Key suppliers and Whole Foods Market have elected to voluntarily withdraw Kombucha products in bottles and on tap from our stores at this time due to labeling concerns related to slightly elevated alcohol levels in some products. This is not a quality issue. Sorry for any inconvenience."
Kombucha drinkers (myself included) have long advocated its use, claiming it aids digestive health, boosts the immune system, and has a cleansing and energizing effect. But does it now pack an extra punch with a more than trace amount of a buzz? What is the difference now? Why are the drinks being pulled now and not before?
How it's Made/Alcohol Content
Kombucha is a living culture of micro organisms. For Kombucha to produce all of its enzymes, probiotics and amino acids it must be cultured for about 30 days. During this process a bit of fermentation takes place. Kombucha is a living food, meaning that it still grows after bottling. Those little floating cultures that are found in bottles are indications that it is still alive.
It seems that some batches had continued to ferment after they had been bottled, perhaps owing their high fermentation to fruit juices put in after initial fermentation had taken place. Apparently, in some batches that Whole Foods tested, the alcoholic content is said to have been as high as 3-4% by volume. In this video Steve Dickman, co-founder of High Country Kombucha, breaks down the alcohol content in Kombucha and what happened from his perspective during last week's pulling.
Others Following Suit
When I first found out about the new controversy surrounding Kombucha, I was actually quite shocked. Not only were the shelves bare at Whole Foods when we went shopping for Father's Day dinner, but at Lexington's local Good Foods Market, I heard a similar story. Only they didn't pull down their remaining Kombuchas. When I purchased one last night one of the employees told me that I might want to stock up as they were going to stop shelving them after their current stock ran out. Today, I went in and bought another and was told that Good Foods couldn't buy them any more because the suppliers wouldn't sell them any. So it seems that the suppliers are covering their assets just in case the feds are watching. Which I'm sure they are.
I'm still a bit confused, befuddled and critical of this move by Whole Foods. Mostly for personal reasons of not being able to purchase a Kombucha at a discount, although I do understand why they did it. However, after looking up a few articles about the situation, there are a few points I'm a little fuzzy about, and some questions I still have.
- First, I have to question the fact that in one article they are saying that they (Whole Foods) don't know how much alcohol is present, and in another there are estimates of 3-4%.
- Second, how and why did Whole Foods randomly test bottles of all different types of Kombucha for alcohol content. It seems that this issue would have come up before now. Even in the video interview at about 2:19, Steve Dickman says that he's "not really sure exactly, really what happened." Did they take a random sample from many stores? Were all of the tested bottles just in one store? How did they know to test them? Just a hunch? Why did they decide to do it now after carrying these products for years?
- Finally, I've read a few articles (and in the video Dickman claims that they did) that have said that they did test it, which would mean that they do know how much alcohol is present. I've also read an article, the AP one, that said it was only after conversations about the alcohol content that they were pulled.
It would be nice for Whole Foods to clear up the issue by disclosing these facts so that there isn't any confusion around the situation. Maybe I'm nitpicking here, but it seems that you would want your consumers to know exactly how and why you decided to pull one of your more popular products from the shelves.
Since things are a bit hazy around the issue, let's go ahead and speculate about this matter. Here I'd like to state a warning: none of what you're about to read is verifiable fact. It's basically just coming from my perspective and perceptions of what I know about how Whole Foods works (I'm still technically an employee) and what I know about Kombucha. Like I said, since Whole Foods hasn't disclosed any information about how and why they tested their Kombuchas for alcohol content, they're basically inviting us to speculate. I welcome any and all points of view, and none of mine are intended to offend or hurt anyone's feelings.
That being said, here is what I think:
Let's look at why they decided to test their bottles. The first rational thought I have about it is that it was probably due to a customer complaint. I'm guessing a bunch of customers called in with similar stories about feeling buzzed off of the Kombucha that they had purchased, which then sparked them to test the product. Yet, unless your consumer base is totally outraged, why would you pull one of your top selling products?
Then, I had to wonder, if that wasn't the case, then perhaps they already knew that they would test over 0.5%. See, Kombucha is a very delicate culture. Also, most of the Kombucha that is made to be sold at stores like Whole Foods, is made West of the Mississippi (GT's in Beverly Hills, CA and High Country in Eagle, CO), which obviously isn't a big deal for distributors and stores that are close, but becomes quite a factor when a refrigerated temperature must be maintained across the country. The Lexington store's distributor is located in Maryland, a good 8-9 hour drive. Factor in the summer heat and you begin to see why Whole Foods may have been wondering about a little extra fermentation. Yet, when thinking further, why hadn't this happened every summer before now?
Then I stumbled upon something else: Kombucha sales have been doubling every year! Last year sales topped $295 million! Even Coca-Cola (which owns 40% of Honest Tea, a Kombucha maker) and Red Bull (with Carpe Diem Kombucha) are trying to get in on the action. That means that the industry is certifiably hot, (no pun intended) possibly attracting some attention from federal regulators. It reminds me of the Dietary Supplement Safety Act, a bill conceived by Sen. John McCain. You can read more about the bill by searching google, but in a nutshell it would give the FDA regulatory control over the $25 billion-a-year-certifiably-hot supplement industry when there are already laws in place that protect consumers.
I'm not gonna lie. I definitely think that there was some pressure put on Whole Foods by the FDA to test their product. There, I said it. To be perfectly honest, this thing kind of seems a little fishy. Just when a product that has many health benefits is soaring in popularity and gaining momentum in the consciousness of mainstream consumers, it's content is called into question. In a society invested in treating disease (pharmaceuticals, hospitals, physical therapy) and not preventing it, this move- after giving it some thought and analysis- really comes as no surprise.
Now don't get me wrong, it definitely does contain trace amounts of alcohol. If you chug one (not recommended) you probably will feel a bit lightheaded. But let's be real, one Kombucha will not impair your ability to function properly on any given day in this society. In fact it will probably enhance it. Unless you are a recovering alcoholic, or someone who just cannot stand any alcohol whatsoever, then Kombucha will most likely just make your stomach feel all warm and fuzzy and regulate your bowels a little better. If you feel a buzz off it, it's most likely due to the fact that the cells in your body haven't had a boost like that in a long, long time.
It seems to me that the FDA (who conveniently turns a blind eye to high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and some sketchy pharmaceuticals) can't resist shooting down the dreams of a righteous business that has had great success beyond the mom-and-pop level. It's as if, once you have people feeling really good off an organic product which could prevent some gastro-intestinal problems, you are then subject to some hair-splitting BS on the federal level. It's really unfortunate because the Kombucha manufacturers aren't going to market their product as an alcoholic beverage- which would mean it would be subject to increased taxes and a smaller consumer base. And they can't pasteurize their product because it would strip it of all it's probiotic, healthy qualities.
Kombucha Makin' Products
What to Do? Make Your Own Brew!
Now, I'm no "doom and gloom" forecaster. I'm confident that this issue will be resolved soon enough. However, I understand the concern from consumers at the same time. When and if Kombuchas come back to the shelves, they may be pasteurized, which would nix all of the alcohol content. The problem with this is that it would also kill all the beneficial bacteria and culture in each bottle. So there would be no point in really buying it. On Whole Food's Facebook page, there are 5 wall posts in the past 20 hours asking where all the Kombucha has gone. On their website's forums page, WFM has been totally quiet about the issue.
Yet there is hope. It's called DIY, do-it-yourself, and making homemade Kombucha is actually quite easy. In fact there are plenty of informative hubs about it. So if you are a Kombucha consumer, I would have to recommend at least giving the home brewing method a shot. Here some things you will need:
- 1 Kombucha mushroom, also known as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) purchase one here
- Black tea
- 1 gallon glass jar (using metal will cause it to leech into the mixture)
- Granulated sugar
- White distilled vinegar
- Purified Water
- Unbleached Coffee Filters or cheesecloth
- Rubber Bands
- Clean bottle or glass to pour finished product into
There are plenty of how to recipes on the web. Below I'll list a few of them since this hub is already so long winded. I guess I'll wrap it up, please feel free to comment. I know this issue is on the minds of any of the health conscious consumers out there, let me know what You think. Thank you! Infinite peace and love!