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Whole Foods fired a man for taking a tuna sandwich destined for the trash

c
caffeination Mar 16, 2009 06:50 PM

The Union Square Whole Foods in New York fired a man for taking a tuna sandwich destined for the trash, which meant he was ineligible for unemployment benefits due to being fired for misconduct.

the NYTimes mentions more here:
http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/200...

What do you think of that?

I personally think that was a bad move on the part of Whole Foods and don't plan to shop there anymore.

What do you think? How significantly do you allow a store or restaurant's policies and/or actions (vs. quality /prices of goods offered) affect your purchasing decisions?

  1. podunkboy Mar 16, 2009 08:18 PM

    I guess if it's an established, written store policy and he violated it, they were within their rights to fire him and deny him unemployement benefits. If it's trash, they probably don't want people eating it, otherwise how are they going to sell their product if their refuse is just as appetizing? I don't know if Whole Foods is union or not, but that might have something to do with it.
    I guess if you dig deep enough and monitor personnel decisions at most major companies, you could find something to justify not doing business with any of them.

    2 Replies
    1. re: podunkboy
      q
      Querencia Mar 17, 2009 01:32 PM

      I read this item in the paper this morning. It said the man had recently been transferred from another department within the same store where his supervisor allowed workers to eat food that was being discarded at the end of the day. This mixed message seems unfair to the worker and WholePaycheck could well afford not to be so petty. Also hypocritical: how can they have "save the earth" logos all over the store and then condone the waste of good food? And to Poptart: say they close at 10 PM, at 9:45 they would have sold that same sandwich to a customer. Is it going to rot in 15 minutes?

      1. re: Querencia
        poptart Mar 17, 2009 06:11 PM

        I totally agree with you, that amount of time doesn't make a difference, and I think it is terrible there is so much waste going on. And people who work there surely should be allowed some free food which was going to be wasted. I certainly don't agree with what WF did, but was questioning the issue of liability being the reason, since this seems to be the cause of so many ridiculous policies.

    2. poptart Mar 16, 2009 08:43 PM

      I wonder if they had a policy against allowing someone to take food destined for trash due to liability issues, such as what if someone took said tuna sandwich, got sick and then sued Whole Foods for it? Wouldn't surprise me if this has happened, and caused them to be strict about this "Cover Your Arse" policy.

      1. Sam Fujisaka Mar 16, 2009 08:56 PM

        Funny, I've relatively recently become a WF shopper on my trips back to the US. NEVER AGAIN! Food waste is a global problem.

        9 Replies
        1. re: Sam Fujisaka
          poptart Mar 16, 2009 10:00 PM

          I totally agree about waste being a huge problem.

          It's probably due to the fact that lawsuits get crazy....like the one where a woman went to a McDonald's, got coffee, put it on her lap in the car while driving, got burned by coffee spillage then sued (successfully!) McDonalds as a result, even though SHE chose to put the coffee where she did, while driving and knew it was hot. It's a crazy world.

          1. re: poptart
            susancinsf Mar 16, 2009 10:57 PM

            before you use the infamous McDonalds lawsuit as an example to prove your point, you might want to do a bit of reading about the actual facts of that case. It isn't really a good example at all, nor is it comparable, nor is it nearly the example of a crazy world as your post would imply. A quick check of google will give you numerous unbiased accounts to read, along with the biased ones.

            There are a lot of explanations for WF's actions that are just as plausible as the 'covering one's arse' explanation. Just as easy for me to believe that one of the following (or all of them) could be the explanation:

            1. They wanted staff to BUY the products (the example below of an employee who would get in trouble for taking paper from the trash at the drug store might have worked at a place with such reasoning: after all, it is very hard to believe that the drug store really thought they could get sued over injury from paper); or

            2. They didn't want customers to see anyone rooting through the trash, for fear it would give a wrong image to the store; or

            3. They didn't want the staff doing anything but working during work hours; or

            4. The policy was enacted to help insure that what went in the trash REALLy was trash; in other words, perhaps they were afraid that if employees were allowed to remove items from the trash, they would trash items prematurely in order to be able to remove them for free....

            Contrary to popular belief, it isn't always about the lawyers.

            1. re: susancinsf
              s
              somedimsum Mar 17, 2009 10:04 AM

              Yes, please don't bring in the McDonalds lawsuit, as you will find that this case was only brought after the national chain refused to lower the temperature settings on their coffee pots, after numerous instances of customers being burned and filing complaints.
              ( see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_...).

              The real issue here is in how this employee was terminated, and the implication that firing him for misconduct saves WF on unemployment claims. More investigation would be merited to make sure that this is not a systemic WF labor practice. That would be ugly.

              1. re: susancinsf
                Davwud Mar 20, 2009 07:43 AM

                #4 is the reason. When I was young and worked at BK we would do just that. A policy was enacted by management to deal with it.

                DT

                1. re: Davwud
                  b
                  bibi rose Mar 20, 2009 03:29 PM

                  Heh. Friends of mine who worked at BK in the olden days were allowed to take a certain number of containers of food home. They spent a lot of time and ingenuity filling those containers with specially made burgers.

                  A lot of people take jobs like that for the discounts, perks and freebies and that's great; it works for everyone. BUT most places put in rules so it doesn't become a free-for-all. I still think WF went overboard firing this guy when he didn't even end up taking the stuff, and assuming it was the first time he's been spoken to. However, things are so bad that they can easily hire someone for less than he's making. You really have to watch your back these days.

              2. re: poptart
                Vetter Mar 17, 2009 09:58 PM

                Poptart, you might want to look that case up. That story has grown well into urban-legend land and I assure you McDonald's had a share of the blame. I wish it wouldn't get referred to every time someone has a gripe about litigation, because it's a crummy example.

                Sure, we're litigious, but we're also a rule of law society. Personally, I want big companies watching their butts. They get away with enough. Yeah, WF picked a stupid fight, but I think this is not a fair snapshot of society.

                1. re: Vetter
                  poptart Mar 18, 2009 06:10 PM

                  Just did some reading on the case and indeed, it is not a good example.

                  What bothers me is when those who try to "beat the system", be they individuals or big companies, do so at the expense of others, solely for their own gain. And the "others" are usually the ones who have to pay the price. Just look at our current economic crisis.
                  All too often it's the big companies taking advantage, for sure.

              3. re: Sam Fujisaka
                pikawicca Mar 18, 2009 06:44 PM

                Sam, I think the jury should be out until we hear WF's side of things. I've heard tales of employees at groceries stealing food and declaring that they thought it had been destined for the scrap heap. Not saying that is the case here, but stores generally have very strict policies to protect against this sort of pilfering.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka
                  j
                  JudiAU Mar 20, 2009 04:26 PM

                  WF, like other companies, donates a lot of uneaten food to charities. I don' tthink this is a waste issue. It is more likely a risk management/theft prevention policy. Otherwise, a lot of good food goes into the trash and employees scavenge it. This is a very common problem, and policy, in the restaurant industry.

                2. r
                  Rasam Mar 16, 2009 10:51 PM

                  I agree that waste is unconscionable. It's always baffled me that stores, hotels, and establishments throw out their surpluses rather than donate.
                  Can someone who works in these companies elaborate?

                  LARAven: your example is really sad. The NYTimes recently reported on a non profit group that takes surplus supplies and donates them to schools. Why can't all corporations do this instead of trashing them? Haven't they any notion of corporate responsibility?

                  Those who work in hotels and chains: I've heard it's SOP for surpluses to be thrown away and employees who take them get fired. Why did this become enshrined as policy, and why was this policy never revised in the light of today's environmental and hunger concerns?
                  Think of all those supplies that come at breakfast: millions of individually wrapped pats of butter or marge, teenytiny bottles of ketchup (do they even produce them any more?) Large surpluses in the kitchen / fridge / freezer.

                  I know the US is a crazy litigous society. But with so much waste, which surely affects their bottom line, and all the PR gains to be made, you think one of them would have gotten their lawyers to figure out a way to donate surpluses rather than waste them.

                  There is apparently enough food to feed the world's 6+ billion. It's just getting thrown into rich countries' trash!

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Rasam
                    c
                    chris in illinois Mar 17, 2009 12:55 AM

                    The local McDonald's franchise years ago used to donate food left over at the end of the night to the 'soup kitchen' a few blocks away until one of the homeless people that ate there sued because they claimed they got sick from it and won a settlement from them. I also worked for them for several years and they also had to revise their policy about employees taking home 'waste' food at the end of the night because employees would frequently cook a whole bag of McNuggets five minutes before close creating a lot of extra 'waste' food to take home with them.

                    I've worked at a number of other retail places over the years and most policies such as the one the OP's post is describing are born out of abuse from either employees or customers.

                    Everyone has an angle.

                    1. re: chris in illinois
                      Azizeh Mar 17, 2009 01:12 AM

                      Yep, I agree. I used to work for a gourmet food company that made prepared meals for people to reheat at home. Sometimes we'd have a surplus due to miscounting or a cancelled order. As employees we were allowed to eat it, but after calling around to the local homeless shelters after a particularly large order (100 meals) was going to be wasted, I found out we'd be liable if anyone got sick, hurt, or whatever else from our food. The risk just wasn't worth it to the company, so in the trash it all went.

                      1. re: Azizeh
                        r
                        Rasam Mar 17, 2009 03:22 AM

                        OOTH every now and then one reads of catering or companies successfully organizing a food donation program of surpluses. So someone somewhere has figured out a way around the liability issue.

                        It just is not right to waste food like that.

                        1. re: Rasam
                          j
                          jpc8015 Mar 17, 2009 03:33 AM

                          It's also not right to take advantage of someone's goodwill then stab them in the back as soon as they turn around.

                          Most of the companies mentioned in the above posts are public companies and have not just a responsibility to their share holders to turn a profit but are legally required to do everything they can to do so. With legal fees being as outrageous as they are it just doesn't make any sense to take the chance to go and donate a bunch of perishable food to a local shelter. Sooner or later somebody will claim to have gotten sick and sue you for it. It is a sad and pathetic situation but it is the world we live in.

                      2. re: chris in illinois
                        shaogo Aug 27, 2009 10:36 AM

                        It's currently against State Health Department regulations in my state for a restaurant/caterer to donate cooked food to soup kitchens, etc.

                        It broke my heart. I used to look forward to calling a soup kitchen in the neighboring city when we'd done a catering job and literally had trays full of unconsumed food. The person in charge there always beamed.

                        After this edict came down from the Health Department, I contacted the soup kitchen and told them that this'd be just one more project for them to lobby about.

                      3. re: Rasam
                        PeterL Mar 17, 2009 10:50 AM

                        The issue is liability. Unless someone is willing to accept the liability for distributing the food (such as the non-profite group you mentioned), a company, esp. a publicly traded one, is not willing to get sued for someone who claims that they ate donated food and got sick. Don't blame the companies, blame our liability laws. And in the OP's original post, a tuna sandwich is not something that can be donated, because it goes bad quickly.

                        The policy against employees taking company waste is to lessen the impact of employees stealing, which is a big problem for many companies.

                        1. re: PeterL
                          r
                          RosemaryHoney Mar 17, 2009 11:03 AM

                          Yep. I worked for food distribution center in North Carolina, and in order to accept prepared food donations, there had to be a tremendous amount of legal paperwork filed and signed on both sides. Both organizations had to legally agree to terms of distribution, food handling, etc. It was a pain in the butt and definitely deterred places from donating their leftover food waste, even though we had a couple volunteers from the UNC law school who'd handle the paperwork.

                          I understand there are other issues tangled up in this story, but if you are truly concerned about food waste, please don't just stop shopping at WF. Get out there and lobby for less restrictive laws regarding food waste. It's completely absurd that a stack of legal papers need to be filed before the local bakery can donate their leftover loaves to a food distribution center. The trash is obviously not the best place for 100 loaves of one day old bread...

                          1. re: PeterL
                            Seth Chadwick Mar 17, 2009 11:17 AM

                            The liability completely depends on the municipality involved. New York City has a Good Samaritan law that protects food service companies from liability should someone get sick from food they donated to a charity like the NYC Food Bank or City Harvest. Phoenix also has such a law.

                        2. g
                          GSM Mar 17, 2009 04:34 AM

                          My local WF market donates all leftover prepared food to a several homeless shelters. I'm not sure it's fair to assume they are unaware of the problems of food waste. Perhaps this employee was, as others have said, in violation of specific policies. Or, perhaps he was fired for generally being incompetent and taking the sandwich was the final straw.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: GSM
                            j
                            jpc8015 Mar 17, 2009 05:29 AM

                            There must be some agreement between your local WF and these shelters that the shelters will assume any liability for the food that is received.

                          2. e
                            elliora Mar 17, 2009 08:21 AM

                            I just wanted to point out that judging from this article, this case had less to do with the sandwich and more to do with the firing of this man. The sandwich was never in the trash either. The man had worked two years at Whole Foods without a single issue. He had recently transferred to the Deli department, he claimed his old department allowed him to take extra food home. He set one of the sandwiches on the counter while he threw the other 29 away. When his boss came in he did not deny the sandwich was for him. Boss told him to toss it and he did.

                            This is where it gets interesting. Rather then being disciplined in some way he is not only fired, but since WF claims it was due to misconduct he could not claim unemployment. He fought that and won his case. Apparently there has been a rash of these "firings" in NY because it saves companies money rather then doing layoffs where they would need to pay for unemployment.

                            Yes the waste is sad but even sadder is this man who worked for two years for $11.50 an hour with no issues, only to be fired for a sandwich that he never actually took or ate. I would love WF to find a way to deal with waste, but with their prices if they are only going to pay 11.50 surely then they can let each employee get a weekly allotment of food. A twenty percent discount is nothing at WF making that amount of money

                            1. mrbigshotno.1 Mar 17, 2009 09:02 AM

                              No.1, the media doesn't always give the whole complete story, there could have been other issues with this guy.

                              No.2, You folks that fly off the handle and say "I'll never shop there again". Who are you kidding?

                              1. c
                                CocoaNut Mar 17, 2009 09:44 AM

                                Technically and legally, he was stealing - regardless of what a previous supervisor had allowed.

                                Additionally, if the sandwich was "out of date", had he eaten it and become ill, he *could* have a civil case.

                                Having had a friend who worked in a meat market, I found out about the "out of date" issues/rules and how seriously grocers take it. It's astounding how much (probably) perfectly good food is literally wasted in abiding by the "sell by" date. But, it is the law. Grocers are libel if they choose to overlook it and negative outcomes arise.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: CocoaNut
                                  Seth Chadwick Mar 17, 2009 11:14 AM

                                  The NY administrative law judge disagrees with you that he was stealing.

                                  1. re: Seth Chadwick
                                    c
                                    CocoaNut Mar 17, 2009 11:26 AM

                                    I'm certainly in no postition to argue, care or be inclined to learn NY law, but by definition, stealing is stealing, unless it's another case of "depending on what the definition of the word "is" is".

                                    1. re: CocoaNut
                                      b
                                      bibi rose Mar 17, 2009 01:48 PM

                                      If you work in food (or retail for that matter) it is very common to be told that taking items destined for the trash is considered theft. This may include things like empty containers. It sounds dumb but it makes sense on the level of the kinds of abuses it could prevent: people constantly setting stuff aside, saying it was to be trashed when it wasn't, and wasting company time with such. I never saw anyone get fired for something like that-- just yelled at until they stopped-- but I daresay it's going to be more common in this economy.

                                      Oh, and the judge says he wasn't stealing, because " Mr. Reese did not eat the food without paying for it and that he did not take the food out of the store. And given the fact that Mr. Reese did not have any prior record of warnings, it was seen as an “isolated instance of poor judgment which does not rise to the level of misconduct.”"

                                      IOW, because the sandwich didn't make it out of the store, not because it would have been OK to take it. That said, if it was the first time I think it was pretty crummy to fire him for that. Unfortunately, that's the way it seems to go with those kinds of jobs.

                                      1. re: bibi rose
                                        rockandroller1 Mar 17, 2009 02:49 PM

                                        I can see both sides but I take the side of WF. I have worked at restaurants where people were allowed to eat "mistakes" and things that at the end of the night would be trash and people DO deliberately make things to set aside knowing they'll get them later, which is in effect stealing. I also agree with those who have said it's a big liability issue - whether it's a tuna sandwich or a deli item or whatever, things DO go bad after sitting around for awhile and to avoid liability problems, the store throws them away instead of donating them or offering them first to employees to purchase before throwing them out - clearly, that is to avoid liability IMO. If any employee ever got sick because they ate food that was sitting out that the store gave them for free, it could result in a huge lawsuit. I agree, it's our litigious society that's created this monster, it's not WF fault.

                                        I do agree that food waste is a problem and it would be nice if, just PRIOR to things being considered "expired" or "been sitting out too late to sell" that employees could be offered last dibs on it before it's trashed, but that would be complicated to organize and could still be teetering on the edge of liability.

                                        1. re: rockandroller1
                                          Sam Fujisaka Mar 17, 2009 03:35 PM

                                          Good work. Very thoughtful.

                                2. bkhuna Mar 17, 2009 08:37 PM

                                  I heard he got his job back after he paid the $15.95 for the sandwich.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: bkhuna
                                    ipsedixit Mar 17, 2009 10:54 PM

                                    Only $15.95?? Must've used his employee discount ...

                                  2. n
                                    Nicole Mar 18, 2009 01:00 PM

                                    I'm not familiar with the details of this particular case, but in general, Whole Foods is one of the most socially conscious food retailers around. The pay a lot more, provide much better benefits, and are more environmentally-friendly than other major supermarkets chains. So if you indeed want to let a store's policies affect your decision to shop there, you're still a lot better off at WF than most other places.

                                    1. a
                                      akq Mar 18, 2009 01:48 PM

                                      Although this case seems pretty ridiculous, I think the policies have at least a basis in good judgment. As lots of posters point out, letting employees eat out of the garbage or eat spoiled food is dangerous to WF (litigation, reputation, etc.). A policy allowing employees to take waste food could incentivize waste - if you know you'll be able to take whatever sandwiches are leftover, why not make a couple extra? On the other hand, food waste is disgusting and it would be a good thing if WF could figure out how to make use of the extra food by donating it. However, I am surprised that so many posters want blanket liability protection for WF against harm caused by unsafe food donated to shelters, etc. Why shouldn't WF be liable to the poor just like it is to its customers? I guess one argument is that when WF sells its products to customers, it includes the costs of insurance, litigation, etc. in its prices, but for donated food, there is no compensation for the risk, so in the absence of liability protection, WF has no incentive to donate the food (other than good press, I guess). But what happens to the poor person who eats the donated food and gets sick? Who pays for their care? Taxpayers would pay - and the only way to manage our risk is to have the healthcodes in place that require tossing food that's past its safe life. I have no idea whether WF was following healthcodes in tossing the food or just its internal guidelines, but it makes sense to me that they'd throw away food when it's not safe to eat and not want people eating it anyway.

                                      In this case, though, the employee had no record of warnings and in fact had worked in another department that had allowed this behavior. He should have gotten, at most, a warning and re-training, but should not have been fired for this first offense.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: akq
                                        Midlife Mar 18, 2009 01:55 PM

                                        We're getting even farther OT here but there was also no mention of what WF did about the former supervisor who was allowing staff to break the rule.

                                        1. re: akq
                                          im_nomad Mar 18, 2009 07:24 PM

                                          I agree with you akg.....right or wrong...surely there was a level process to discipline for employees. I think it'd be a different story if this guy was doing this all the time.

                                          it's also kind of sad that charity can result in litigation.

                                        2. j
                                          JudiAU Mar 20, 2009 04:22 PM

                                          Assuming they had a written policy, and I am sure they did, I think firing him for cause is fine. Theft in a supermarket, especially in of prepared foods, is a serious matter.

                                          When I worked in retail many years ago it was common to see employees hiding merchandise. They wanted the merchandise to go unsold until it went on sale or when it was sale to hold it until it went on to another sale. If was a firing offense because it was, in a sense, theft.

                                          1. j
                                            jeanmarieok Aug 28, 2009 03:22 PM

                                            McDonalds does exactly the same thing - if you are caught eating out of the discards (which is where food goes when it's 'up' too long under the heat lamp). I guess you just can't have your employees eating what you have defined as not for consumption - I would be it's a liability issue.

                                            1. c
                                              ChanceTDaily Aug 28, 2009 03:54 PM

                                              I think it's a safety play. Maybe a written warning would have sufficed, but Its like giving away free things to homeless people from a restaurant. The city we live in makes it so dangerous. People sue if you splash water on them driving by. Better to be safe than sorry. Might have had a better alternative, but WF doesn't know where the employees going after, who he could give it to, what he could represent as the company. What if he left, gave the sandwich to a guy in the gutter, the guy got sick and said he got it from whole foods. He did didnt he?

                                              1. b
                                                Brandon Nelson Aug 31, 2009 12:15 AM

                                                I have spent over 20 years in the industry and this is written policy EVERYWHERE. I know people that have been disciplined or terminated for the same sort of thing at Safeway, Luckys,Ralphs, Albertsons and Raleys, as well as smaller independents.

                                                If you are looking for vilans in retail grocery Whole Foods isn't one of them. Its a good place to work, and they value their human resources.

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