Whole Foods Just Made a Big Decision About Using Prison Labor

October 2nd 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Whole Foods will no longer sell food produced or processed by prisoners. The move is in response to recent protests at one of the Austin-based company's Texas stores, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

The company said that since some of its customers felt uncomfortable with the store using prison labor to turn a profit, it would stop selling tilapia, trout, and goat cheese sourced from a Colorado program that some of the company's stores have used for at least four years.

A company spokesperson told the AP that store participated in the prison labor program to "help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society." But about 30 people gathered outside a Houston, Texas store over the weekend to protest the store's use of the program. The group was protesting the fact that the goat cheese sold for $12 per pound was sourced from inmates making 60 cents per day, the pro-labor news site Fight Back! reported.

A Whole Foods spokesperson did not immediately return ATTN:'s request for comment.

Though the announcement comes after the weekend protest, the company has faced sharp criticism recently for relying on prison labor to produce high-end goods. According to a VICE News report on the program, private companies enter into contracts with the Colorado Department of Corrections, paying the DOC for inmate labor. Quixotic Farming, whose products, like tilapia, go to vendors like Whole Foods, has inmates construct fish tanks and raise some of its fish for market. The Colorado DOC gets 85 cents per pound for the fish; it was reportedly sold for $11.99 per pound at a Whole Foods in New York back in July. Quixotic Farming and a dairy company that uses inmates to milk and herd goats pay as little as 74 cents and as high as $4 per day for the labor, VICE News reported.

Proponents of inmate labor programs say that often they can provide prisoners with work and useful skill training, but contracts with private companies can blur the line between benevolence and an interest in cheap labor costs. "They say they care about the community, but they're enhancing their profit off of poor people," prison reform advocate Michael Allen told the AP. Colorado Correctional Industries, which contracts inmates with companies, reported employing more than 1,800 inmates last year, according to AP.

While Whole Foods is the latest company whose use of a prison labor program has put them in headlines, there are numerous other examples of prison labor programs being used by private companies.

1. Clothing

Popular retail clothing brands, including J.C. Penny and Victoria's Secret, contracted inmates in South Carolina in the 1990s to manufacture somewhere around $1.5 million worth of clothing. Those contracts ended in the 1990s, but some have suggested that the case—at least with Victoria's Secret—was the inspiration for a segment in which inmates sew lingerie on the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." Many McDonald's uniforms are also made in prisons, according to a Global Research report.

2. Food

According to a 2008 Mother Jones report, California inmates process huge amounts of everyday food items, including over "680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken products, 450,000 gallons of milk, 280,000 loaves of bread, and 2.9 million eggs (from 160,000 inmate-raised hens)." Other inmates in Florida produce Hamlin and Valencia oranges, which are turned into orange juice sold nationwide.

3. Furniture

Colorado Corrections Industries, which also contracted inmates for food items formerly sold by Whole Foods, produces a variety of furniture for offices, lounges, and dormitories. Florida inmates also produce dorm furniture, outdoor benches, and even the furniture used in correctional facilities.