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Leon Kaye headshot

Is Whole Foods Unethical for Selling Tilapia Raised by Prison Labor?

By Leon Kaye

A Pacific Standard Magazine article that highlights the farming of tilapia by prison labor, some of which ends up in Whole Foods, is inspiring or infuriating depending on your point of view.

Some commentators describe the company’s sourcing of fish from a Colorado prison as rife with ethical issues. Whole Foods, meanwhile, has long touted its “something great” tilapia but is cagey about where they source it. The retailer may want to reword that page with its ringer, “No other national grocery store or fish market has standards like these.” Meanwhile, a company representative told another publication that the amount of prison-raised tilapia available at the company’s stores is “not a large part of the seafood we sell.”

Obviously critics are not going to be satisfied with that attempt at linguistic gymnastics. Note how Whole Foods mentioned seafood and not tilapia itself. But there are few regulations at any level of government that requires Whole Foods, or any company, to disclose that its products are the result of prison labor. From a business perspective, why would they? A sign spiked in the ice at the Whole Foods’ seafood section mentioning the practice would give most customers the vision that their fish was splayed and gutted by the likes of Pensatucky and Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black" — who, for their efforts, make 11 cents an hour on the fictional show.

But as the author of the article, Graeme Wood, points out: The prisoners at the Colorado Correctional Industries’ (CCi) fish farm make $1.50 an hour — still well under minimum wage but decent compared to what inmates in other states garner. There are other job programs available as well: an apiary for honey production, dog training, fiberglass and redwood canoe making, and even a winery. By the way, in 2005, the CCi Juniper Valley Chardonnay won a silver medal at a wine competition in southern California. Inmates at this facility are hardly doing the clichéd work of hammering out license plates or working in telephone customer service for Fortune 500 companies.

Critics of the use of prison inmates to perform jobs cite prisoners’ lack of labor rights. That is a fair point, though the loss of just about all rights is a given once one is incarcerated. And the Colorado Correctional Industries’ work programs are a model work program, providing job training to prisoners while allowing them to pass the time in a healing way — and about as close to nature as one can get while surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

The ethical issue that stakeholders should press companies about is whether it is fair for multinationals to benefit from this practice. A bevy of tax incentives are on the books at all layers of government. Even at the low rates at which these prisoners are paid, companies can recoup the cost of prison wages depending on where they conduct their “business.” Considering the cost of labor to provide this product at your neighborhood “Whole Wallet,” the company has some explaining to do about how it profits from sourcing from this Colorado prison. (Whole Foods also has other issues to explain, such as sourcing products from China, pitching products that are backed by dubious science, its hostile attitude to unions — the same as many big companies do.)

Whether prison labor is the next chapter in corporate social responsibility remains to be seen. But it is a fair issue to bring up, especially when there are still plenty of people in the U.S. who would like those jobs but at a decent wage. The practice runs across just about every industry: There are even rumblings that Elon Musk has been dipping in the prison labor market in Oregon.

Just because the 13th amendment guarantees the use of prison labor and regulations do not require such disclosure are not an excuse for companies to hide behind vague statements when asked about this path of sourcing products and services. Stakeholders and consumers are reasonable to request information from companies about whether their products are made by prisoners -- as well as how the company benefits financially.

Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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