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Whole Foods Is Going to Stop Selling Food Made By US Prisoners

After protests broke out at one of its Texas stores, Whole Foods is taking the offending products—goat cheese and tilapia—off its shelves by April 2016 or sooner.
October 1, 2015, 7:00pm
Photo via Flickr user ario

Whole Foods is known in some parts as "Whole Paycheck," but now the company is under fire for sourcing products from a labor force that is paid well under minimum wage.

Yesterday, Whole Foods announced it would no longer sell food products made by prisoners after protests broke out at one of its Texas stores. The offending products—goat cheese and tilapia—will be off of Whole Foods shelves by April 2016 or sooner.

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Add this incident to the litany of woes that have plagued the company as of late: 1,500 layoffs to cut costs; a PETA lawsuit claiming its animal welfare standards aren't what they claim; $6 "asparagus waters" that were literally just bottles of water with asparagus stalks inside; and accusations of systematically overcharging customers in New York City. To add insult to injury, Whole Foods was eviscerated on South Park last night.

READ: PETA Is Claiming That Whole Foods Lies About Its Animal Welfare Standards

Since 2011 or perhaps earlier in some stores, Whole Foods has been selling goat cheese produced by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and tilapia from Quixotic Farming, both of which are produced at least in part by workers from the Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi).

The decision to yank the products comes after pressure from customers who were uncomfortable with the practice, and a protest this past weekend at a Whole Foods in Houston by the group End Mass Incarceration Houston. The group's founder, Michael Allen, organized the protest and told the Associated Press that Whole Foods' use of prison labor was hypocritical and exploitative. "They say they care about the community, but they're enhancing their profit off of poor people," Allen said.

The protest was posted as an event on Facebook hosted by End Mass Incarceration Houston under the name "Hell Foods Market Inmate Slave Exploitation Demonstration."

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Critics of prison work programs say that they allow private companies to profit off cheap labor. An essay in Dissent Magazine finds the practice to be particularly egregious at Whole Foods, which shapes its image around the idea of "conscious capitalism." When you shop at Whole Foods, it argues, you pay extra to know and feel good about the provenance of your food, and to be comfortable knowing that the workers who produced it did so in fair working conditions and are justly compensated.

When Whole Foods was asked about sourcing products produced with prison labor last year after a story in Forbes exposed the practice, the company defended doing so in a series of tweets, writing "One of our core values is supporting our communities, & that includes paid, rehabilitative employment of inmates at CCi. CCi's animal husbandry programs plays [sic] a small but vital role in rehabilitating inmates so they can learn job skills to help them contribute to society in meaningful ways upon release. We're proud to partner w/programs that help inmates," they concluded, and linked to a story in Culture cheese magazine about the dairy program.

Photo via Flickr user Ranchita Vida

Photo via Flickr user Ranchita Vida

CCi is a work rehabilitation program for inmates that employs more than 1,800 prisoners in over 60 different work programs, with the aim of preparing inmates for successful employment upon release from jail. The place sounds a bit like a Willy Wonka factory: In addition to more mundane things like manufacturing office chairs and air filters, workers at CCi run a water buffalo dairy and apiary; make canoes, stuffed animals, and American flags; fight wildfires; and train K-9s. The self-funded state program's history working in agriculture dates back to 1874, and includes many other activities than those listed above. CCi's base wages are 60 cents a day, but CCi's director told Forbes that most prisoners earn between $300 and $400 per month with incentives.

The program also offers continuing education with college courses. In its 2014 annual report, CCi says it improves recidivism rates, an ongoing problem that plagues the prison system as inmates are unable to find work upon release and turn back to crime to make ends meet in an oroborus of criminality. CCi says that more than 80 percent of former inmate workers with at least six months of work experience in CCi programs remain out of jail a year after release, compared with a national average rate of just 61.6 percent.

When Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy spoke to MUNCHIES earlier this year, director of sales and marketing John Scaggs said that criticisms that food companies exploit prison labor to improve their bottom lines are, at least in his case, misleading. Haystack pays market rate for its goat milk, he said, with any extra profit made by CCi going to fund additional work programs. Scaggs also told the Wall Street Journal that the program will source some of its milk from different facilities to continue being stocked in Whole Foods, but the company still supports CCi programs.

A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections expressed disappointment with the announcement, but the CCi program continues to grow. It added eight new industries to its program in 2014, bringing the number of businesses within CCi to 87, and hopes to double the number of inmates it employs within the next decade.

But tell that to the mob in Houston.