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Mar 16, 2009 04:46 PM

Whole Foods Does a Really, Really Stupid Thing

Fired a guy for planning to eat a tuna sandwich that was destined for the trash. And then tried to deny him his unemployment benefits.

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  1. What I find troubling besides how they treated this man (and good for NY for reinstating his benefits) is that WF would rather throw the food out completely than donating it to shelters or food banks or other charities that can immediately redistribute that food to hungry and needy people.

    NYC has a program called NYCWasteLe$$ that encourages corporations to do that (such as donating the food to City Harvest), so WF has no excuse unless they simply can't be bothered.

    They deserve the bad PR.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Seth Chadwick

      I'd agree with that concern 100%, assuming there was a viable means of distributing the food to a proper place. I used to own a small wine and cheese shop and had delivered bread left over 3 times a week from retail sales and tastings. I tried for months to find a food kitchen, church or other organization to pick it up but couldn't. I began giving it away to customers (not a brilliant business formula if you're trying to sell it) and wound up throwing a lot away.

      What was also very troubling about that case was that the man was apparently fired for SAYING he was going to eat the sandwich, not for actually eating it. Talk about zero tolerance policies!

      1. re: Midlife

        The restaurant which I was involved in on Saturday night since we were closed Sunday would contact a local shelter like Salvation Army or Good Will and there was also a local church who had a Sunday lunch for those who needed help. The restaurant would give the left over meals from the last couple of days to the shelters. Sometimes it was some soup, chicken, a casserole, potatoes, anything can help. Also 1x per month the employees got together and we had a Sunday feed the hungry in the party. All donated time and my vendors helped. Usually we made big vats of soup, rolls and salad. Inexpensive but it meant a lot to those who had no money to eat. Good promo. Whole food obviously is doing well enough and should be involved light that. I can't believe what they did to the guy. Restaurants or places like whole foods throw too much away when there are hundreds of Americans starving.
        Just as an example my friend in MI plus 4 of his friends contacted a couple of vendors who agreed to donate just basics, broth, vegetables, chicken, salad, etc to have a soup, sandwich and salad day. We are having a big open event for the homeless. A ice local cream shop is also going to be there and one of the local grocery stores is putting together bags with a free gift card (food only), some nuts and healthy snacks, fruit and beverages. Other local restaurants gave coupons for a free sandwich or free beverage or free burger etc. It is in 3 weeks, northern MI. I will be there. It took less than 2 weeks online and email to set it up. Most people are willing to do it if contacted. We will have 3 soups 3 - 5 gallon vats, some simple sandwiches from pimento cheese to tuna salad and bologne, ham sandwiches, burgers and dogs, fresh salad and ice cream. We do this 4x times a year all free and volunteer time. The people are so gracious and thankful. If we can do it, why can't places like whole foods and other places.

        I suppose this goes to another thread, but I think it still falls on what you said. What was Whole Foods thinking?

      2. re: Seth Chadwick

        That's a good question. Where I volunteer, we get a lot of food from Starbucks, sandwiches, baked goods. I don't think it's corporate driven but the managers of the stores take care of it. Someone from the store volunteers to bring it in. And, there is the liability issue, if someone gets sick, or even says they got sick, they are opening themselves up. The distribution as MIdlife said is the trickiest part of all--having someone pick it up in a timely manner and pass it on to others. We have problems getting enough volunteers to pick up food from grocery stores that have extra food.

        1. re: chowser

          Funny you should mention it but one of the places I called said they picked up from the Starbuck's' (sp?) nearby but our business hours were such that they couldn't do both.

          1. re: chowser

            At the restaurant I am involved in when have a signed agreement that we drop off food. No liability. It has to be fresh no more than a 2nd day old is all and we have paperwork to document it. and Fortunately it is local and there are volunteers that agree to pick it up. It is hard especially is larger cities.

          2. re: Seth Chadwick

            Years ago when my SO worked as a messenger in SF lawyers often had him take leftover food to a homeless shelter. It seemed weird to me that they were paying him to do it.

          3. With the limited amount of information given about this case, and the employee, I'll reserve my judgement. I certainly don't think it reflects on WF as a corporation. They are otherwise known to be pretty good employers, relatively speaking, and a 20% employee discount is more generous than many. The only thing that matters is whether there existed clear rules about holding aside/taking expired food and whether this employee knowingly violated them-- perhaps habitually, even though there was no written record of prior complaints (the article alludes to the fact that it was regular practice in his prior dept.)
            As for donating the food, or allowing employees to consume old food, there are certainly liability issues, and many charities do not accept expired or out-of date food, or cannot distribute it quickly enough.

            4 Replies
            1. re: choco_lab38

              Most municipalities have "good Samaritan" shield laws that prevent liability in such instances as restaurants or markets giving food to charities. New York City and my city (Phoenix) have those laws/ordinances on the books.

              But why not give it to charity and let them decide if it can be distributed instead of just automatically throwing it in the dumpster? If I am a person living on the street, a roast beef sandwich on day old bread and wilted lettuce is preferable to hunger.

              1. re: Seth Chadwick

                I agree we have agreements with some local places and if they want the food they come and get it. At that point it is up to them. But we also certify the food is not more than 2 days, not spoiled and kept fresh. But smaller towns are easier to work with as well.

                1. re: Seth Chadwick

                  Seth, we have WASTE NOT here in Phoenix that distributes excess food from restaurants, caterers and grocery stores to hungry recipients. Begun in 1987, using a borrowed pickup truck (unrefrigerated, I must admit), we made the rounds of donors and delivered the product the same day. Large corporations were afraid to become involved but The Good Samaritan law, passed in 1989, helped to expand the donation base because the possibility of "deep-pocket " lawsuits was greatly lessened. I'd like to cite Long John Silvers chain as being the first to participate in WASTE NOT, not because I think their food is extraordinary, but because they were willing to take a chance and help the community. The caterering company at Phoenix Convention Center followed quickly. Today, Whole Foods is among the WASTE NOT donors. There is a minimum pick-up requirement as well as scheduled routes. It isn't feasible to send a truck for a single tuna fish sandwich so I'll bet there is more to this story. Meantime, WASTE NOT continues to provide an enormous amount of food so the local charities can use their dollars for more projects instead of having to spend it on food.

                  Edit: Shame on me, I forgot to mention how much I enjoy reading your comprehensive reviews on the SW board. You do a great job for all of us, thank you.

                  1. re: Sherri


                    I am familiar with the food donation system here in Phoenix and it has been a wonderful success. If the WF locally participates, that is great.

                    In this instance, however, the WF in NYC pitched 30 tuna sandwiches according to the article and the administrative law judge's finding of fact.

              2. Let me just play devil's advocate here for a minute.

                There are reasons why stores have policies against employees either taking, eating, or using merchandise destined to be discarded.

                The rationale behind this is to discourage employees from destroying or discarding merchandise that could otherwise be sold.

                Let's say you work in the deli dept. and you've decided that the potato salad "needs" to be discarded because it's past due it's expiration date. So as a good, frugal person you decide to take home a big tub of the salad. Who's to say that the potato salad was really past it's useful life?

                Or, another example (non-food). Let's say you work in the paint dept at a home improvement store and a customer returns a can of paint because the color doesn't match. This is a custom made color and can no longer be sold. You, the employee, decide to take it home with you. Violation? Of course. Why? Because the store does not want to encourage employees taking home discarded or damaged merchandise. Allowing this can lead to all sorts of "odd" incentives -- incl. the most obvious of being in cohoots with the customer who ordered the custom paint that just didn't match. In other words, customer comes in, orders special color, returns the paint because it's a bad match, you take the paint home for free, then turn around and sells it at a reduced cost to the original customer who returned the paint in the first place.

                Happens all the time.

                Not taking sides here (employee v employer), but just saying that there are valid reasons for the WF policy -- as wasteful as it might seem at first glance.

                8 Replies
                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I may have missed it somewhere in these posts, but I don't think anyone here's questioning a stores right to have such a policy or to enforce the violation of it. Posters have questioned the idea that the store would rather throw out the food than donate it to a needy cause and that they terminated the employee for setting a sandwich aside and saying he INTENDED to eat it, which he never got the chance to do.

                  1. re: Midlife

                    Again, I am not try to stir up a fight here, but I am a bit puzzled by your post Midlife.

                    You say the following: "I don't think anyone here's questioning a stores right to have such a policy or to enforce the violation of it. "

                    Ok, I am following so far.

                    Then you say: "Posters have questioned the idea that the store would rather throw out the food than donate it to a needy cause and that they terminated the employee for setting a sandwich aside and saying he INTENDED to eat it, which he never got the chance to do."

                    That's where you lose me. Those two statements are essentially irreconcilable.

                    The policy in question -- i.e. WF requires expired food to be discarded -- if enforced would require that WF terminate the employee, regardless of whether he intended to eat the sandwich or use it as a paperweight.

                    Again, let me reiterate that I'm not necessarily taking sides here. I just want to point out that there are legit reasons why a store would want to have, and enforce, such a policy.

                    And, by the way, there is a difference between a store donating food to a shelter and allowing employees to take food marked for destruction. The former is something a store can control and does not encourage employee theft (or fraud); the latter is an entirely different matter.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      In this case, however, the store seems to be somewhat schizophrenic in what it enforces and doesn't and the ramifications that follow. The New York administrative law judge that oversaw the unemployment appeal found as a matter of fact some team leads at that Whole Foods allowed employees to take things home destine for the trash but in this case the team lead did not. Since that was the case, why termination and not simply a verbal warning? Even the judge found the taking of the tuna sandwich "an isolated instance of poor judgment."

                      If we terminated everyone that committed "an isolated instance of poor judgment," turnover in business would be 100%.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        OK, I get it. We're looking at the same thing from different perspectives. You're saying the violation was for not discarding the food. Actually I was looking at the article and seeing the policy as not allowing employees to eat food without paying for it. The policy apparently says both.

                        In the Times article the court appears to be dealing with both issues: "The administrative law judge, William Badillo, ruled in February that Mr. Reese did not eat the food without paying for it and that he did not take the food out of the store." First, eating; second, interfering with the directive to discard the sandwich.

                        The point I was trying to make was that it seemed overly punitive to fire someone who didn't appear to physically violate either policy. I understand that he was supposed to have tossed the tuna but one might hope that personnel policies with such terminal results would have some room in them for the employee to explain (as he later did) that his former supervisor had allowed violation of the policy. One thing that's pretty standard in company policy legality is that they have to be applied equally to maintain validity.

                        I'm not a lawyer but there is certainly the concept of intent within the law (and I guess that's what WF was acting on) but it seems overly punitive to do so unless they could prove some related pattern of behavior. In this specific case that pattern could be explained by the article's point that the employee had recently been transferred from another department where his supervisor had allowed food like that to be eaten. Oh, and this is coming from someone who was on a jury that found two guys guilty in intent for loitering around a valet garage with autoburglary tools in their possession, though they never tried to break into a car.

                        1. re: Midlife

                          We're also seeing it only from his view. Was that what really happened, and it is it the first time? I really find it hard to believe that a store would fire someone for that. When I worked at McDonald's in hs, there were strict regulations on what we could have based on shift. There would be employees who would pile food on the grill just before their shift ended and then take bags of food home for their friends because the food had gone bad. If this were a regular occurence where they were reprimanded, maybe the one time someone was fired, was the one that was publicized. Cases aren't always that open and shut and you can't go from one perspective.

                          1. re: chowser

                            The NY administrative law judge who oversaw the unemployment claim appeal (and ruled in the employee's favor) noted in the findings of fact in his decision that there was no evidence the employee had never been given warning that what he was doing was problematic and, in fact, his previous team lead let him and other employees take home the food that was going to be discarded.

                            1. re: Seth Chadwick

                              I agree with everyone on this subthread -- Midlife, chowser and Seth Chadwick.

                              It if was an isolated incident, then I don't really see a justification for terminating the guy.

                              And, yes, like chowser mentioned, if employees were allowed to just take extra or past due food home, there could countless ways to abuse such a system.

                              And, no doubt, Seth the findings of fact illustrate that WF may have been too draconian in this instance.

                              I think my main point was that we shouldn't excorciate WF for having "a" policy about not permitting employees to eat or take food marked for destruction. That's simply too glib of a position to take.

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                ipse, I guess my thing was that I didn't think what I posted was excoriating WF for their policy but for how they seemed to have administered it in this case. 'nuff said.

                  2. Seems like there's more than one thread about this going on: