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Whole Foods to Stop Selling Items Made Using Prison Labor

The grocery chain will source products, such as cheeses and fish, from new vendors, following customer pressure.

image via (cc) flickr user bookgrl

Grocery chain Whole Foods announced this week that they would stop selling items provided by vendors who use prison labor. ABC News reports that by April, 2016, products provided by prisoners participating in an incarceration-to-work program, will no longer be sold by the company. The move came in response to a proposed protest at one of the Whole Foods’ Texas stores, organized by prison reform activists angry over the chain’s partnership with several vendors who, in turn, use workers from Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of that state’s department of corrections.

Michael Allen, founder of End Mass Incarceration Houston, and organizer of the Texas protest, pointed to the policy of using low-cost prison labor as being seemingly at odds with Whole Food’s carefully crafted socially conscious image. Speaking with the BBC, Allen said: “Whole Foods is hypocritical because it says it cares about the community, but what it really cares about is profits.” Allen notified the company in August of his plans to protest their Houston store over their carrying of certain brands of goat cheese and Tilapia, both of which are cultivated by inmates. Shortly before Allen’s protest was scheduled to begin, however, the company reportedly made the decision to stop stocking those products.

Spokesman Michael Silverman told ABC News that, while Whole Foods was initially drawn to prison labor programs as a way to “help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society,” the company chose to stop stocking the products after customers voiced their concerns over the practice.

However, not everyone is quite so enthusiastic as about Whole Food’s about-face. Speaking with NPR, John Scaggs, whose Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy worked with CCI prisoners to produce the goat cheese that’s been slated for removal from the grocery chain’s shelves, explained:

“This is a model example of a prison-work program. By purchasing goat's milk from the facility [that uses prison labor], we're supporting ... rehabilitative incarceration.”

He later elaborated, saying:

“If an inmate is serving a sentence for a few years, they can come out with a few thousand bucks [in savings] and a whole new skill set.”

That may be true, although the in-state prison-to-work industry is one for which there are many questions, and no federal regulation. For now, though, Scaggs tells NPR, he’ll simply be looking for new dairy partners who don’t rely on prison labor so he can continue selling to Whole Foods.

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