Report finds some restaurant chains are using ingredients produced with prison labor

Working Lunch: The situation could draw fire to the industry, yet even the involved brands may not be aware of their vulnerability.

A two-year study by the Associated Press has revealed at least several big restaurant chains are sourcing ingredients produced by prison inmates, a bombshell that could expose the industry to considerable criticism, as this week’s Working Lunch podcast attests.

Co-hosts Joe Kefauver and Franklin Coley characterize the report as a potential black eye for the business rather than a sure-fire source of condemnation.

“I don’t think this is a 5-alarm fire at this point, but this is something that people should be paying attention to,” Coley observes during the broadcast.

He explains that the AP’s report isn’t focused on restaurant sourcing, but rather on the whole issue of prisons using inmates to staff farms whose output is then sold to outside parties. The story points out that the inmate-workers often have no choice but to perform their assigned functions, and may be paid literally pennies per hour—if they’re paid at all.

In other instances, inmates are contracted out to work in private-sector factories or processing plants at reduced pay rates. For instance, the story says, inmates have been used to sort Idaho potatoes and produce Russell Stover chocolates.

The syndicated article stresses that the inmates can’t complain to an OSHA or the Department of Labor if they feel abused or exploited. Yet, it acknowledges, the situation is legal.

McDonald’s and Chipotle are mentioned in passing as brands that have been known to use ingredients produced by inmates, along with such recognizable names as Coca-Cola, Cargill and Bunge. The article quotes a McDonald’s spokesperson as saying the chain will now examine its supply chain to see where prison-produced items may come into play.

“This stuff is so far down the supply chain that a lot of brands had no idea this was happening,” observes Coley.

Still, he says, for the industry, “this should be one of the issues on our list of what we’re watching for and trying to get a handle on.”

Hit Play to learn more about the AP report and the potential black eye it could give the industry.

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