Rachel Berliner: Exposed with Worker Abuse Controversy (2023)
Being vegetarian and organic does not automatically make a business sustainable or socially responsible. For instance, despite expanding its line of plant-based foods such as Freshly’s Purely Plant, Garden Gourmet, and Sweet Earth, the Swiss food giant Nestlé has long been accused of deforestation, questionable water sources, and child exploitation.
Then there is Amy’s Kitchen, a well-known organic vegetarian food business that has been providing inexpensive, nutritious ready-to-eat meals since 1987. However, after allegations of alleged working hazards in its California factory surfaced, the firm is currently the target of boycott demands.
Selling organic vegetarian pot pies out of their house in Petaluma, California, Andy and Rachel Berliner founded the family-run company, which they named after their daughter Amy. The $600 million food conglomerate is most known for its canned soups and constant presence in the frozen food aisle of supermarkets with a variety of pizzas, pasta dishes, and hamburgers. In addition to having fast food locations in California, Amy’s sells more than 200 vegetarian items in more than 30 different countries.
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Another highlight of the frozen area, Amy’s fan-favorite burritos, is undoubtedly recognizable by their rustic packaging. The largest union in the US, Teamsters Local Union 665, claims that Amy’s employees roll ten of those delectable plant-based burritos per minute.
Five-year Amy’s line employee Flor Menjivar revealed to Sliced that she had even produced 12 burritos per minute. They force us to roll so many burritos that our bodies want to give up from the discomfort, she claims.
The company’s website states that goodness is the only guiding concept at Amy’s. This year, that selfless mindset has been called into doubt. Some workers have complained about unsafe working conditions at the company, including blocked fire exits, worn-out floor mats, malfunctioning equipment, and inadequate training. Numerous people have criticized the charges and called for a product boycott of Amy’s.
Following allegations of worker abuse and injury, there has been a boycott of Amy’s Kitchen
The San Francisco-based, family-owned Amy’s Kitchen brand has developed a reputation as the antithesis of numerous nameless major food companies throughout its 35-year history. It is renowned for using organic ingredients and offering a variety of canned and frozen foods that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans, including gluten-free bean burritos and thin-crust cheese pizzas in the Neapolitan style.
The feeling of being the mom-and-pop shop next door is literal: CEO Andy Berliner and his wife Rachel Berliner established the business, naming it after their young daughter, in the milk barn of the family’s ranch in Northern California. Andy Berliner and Rachel Berliner once said to a reporter, “If Amy can’t pronounce the name of the ingredient, you won’t find it on any of our labels.”
It is also well-recognized for rewarding employees in public. According to a company Facebook post from February, Rachel Berliner “Taking care of our employees and their families while respecting our planet has always been core to everything we do at Amy’s.”
However, the business, which has expanded from its rural roots to include about 3,000 workers and sites in California, Oregon, and Idaho, has recently been the target of allegations at odds with its reputation as a family-friendly, worldly citizen. The business has been charged with bullying and mistreating employees, as well as creating hazardous working conditions at its Santa Rosa, California, operation that have reportedly resulted in several injuries.
A boycott is being sparked by news reports about the complaints, including those by NBC and Eater. This is an unexpected development for a business with a passionate and devoted consumer base.
A complaint was filed against the business with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and a challenge was made to the company’s B Corp status, which is given to businesses that exhibit “high social and environmental performance,” “accountability to all stakeholders,” and “transparency.
Emails for a response from Amy’s representative went unanswered, but the business last month released a message from Andy Berliner and Rachel Berliner on its Facebook page disputing a number of the allegations made against it.
Cecilia Luna Ojeda, a veteran employee, detailed the alleged injuries that she and other employees claimed they had received as a result of the expectations placed on them in the complaint. The speed at which personnel is asked to do their responsibilities is criticized in the complaint: According to employees, they were supposed to roll 10–12 burritos every minute, while a line with insufficient people was expected to put together up to 72 plates of food per minute.
The letter, co-signed by Teamsters Local 665 principal officer Tony Delorio, also includes allegations of defective equipment, obstructed fire exits, workloads that result in repetitive-stress injuries, a lack of restroom breaks, and a lack of access to clean water.
|“Workers are ignored, shamed, or retaliated against when they do use the restroom,” the January complaint stated.|
Following that, Cal/OSHA performed an inspection of the plant, but it has not yet officially addressed the complaint or released its conclusions. However, Rachel Berliner refuted the allegations regarding restroom breaks, fire exits, and drinking water in the Facebook post. He cited the company’s safety initiatives and declared that it would invest $50 million in safety-related projects over the following five years. We will never stop trying to make changes, he added, adding that even one accident is too many.
Delorio claimed that employees at the company’s Santa Rosa plant had first inquired about organizing a union. Early on, however, he noticed that workers weren’t only concerned with the standard “meat and potatoes” union issues, like greater salaries or health insurance coverage. In an interview, he claimed that “the injuries and working conditions were the worst that our local had ever seen.” People who desire to organize typically state that they want “better pay or generally better conditions” because they are not losing limbs at work.
He said that the union first concentrated on the safety complaints before turning to organize, a move that led Amy’s to employ Quest Consulting, a firm with headquarters in Las Vegas that Tartine Bakery failed tried to use to stop a unionizing campaign. The Santa Rosa plant’s employees were agitated by the unionization attempt, and as soon as consumers learned about the safety complaints, they started to boycott the company.
The boycott has targeted both individual consumers and grocery stores, and activists are leading it from the Food Empowerment Project and Veggie Migas. According to organizers, a small number of independent grocery stores have already removed Amy’s products from their shelves. These stores include the Mandela Grocery Cooperative in Oakland, California; Earth’s General Store in Edmonton, Alberta; People’s Co-Op and Alberta Co-Op in Portland, Oregon; and Cornucopia Natural Wellness Market in Northampton, Massachusetts. Other small and independent stores are being targeted, but it doesn’t appear that any major chains have joined just yet.
Rachel Berliner appeared to blame the Teamsters for the boycott in the Facebook letter. “Our employees are saddened and scared by this negative campaign led by a union and are not asking for boycotts,” he added.
The Food Empowerment Project’s creator, Lauren Ornelas, claims that customers find it difficult to reconcile the company’s reputation with its purported behavior. “Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s cruelty-free,” she remarked. “Amy’s treatment of employees goes directly against their stated values.”
According to Suneal Bedi, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, this disconnect may make a boycott of Amy’s products more effective. According to experts, the effect of a boycott typically isn’t so much a loss in sales as it is brand damage, which might prompt businesses to alter the conduct that customers found troublesome.
According to Bedi, buyers of Amy’s maybe even more prone to feel aggrieved than those of a less specialized brand. He claimed that Amy’s client “likes everything Amy’s stands for and is probably willing to pay a premium for the product because of that.” As a result, they are considerably more aware of what is going on with the business and perhaps, generally, with many of the companies they do business with.
Even devoted customers, according to Ornelas, will be willing to give up their favorite burritos for something more significant. We miss Amy’s products, therefore people are hoping that they act responsibly, she remarked. But the rights of the employees do not supersede our desire to purchase them.
What response do Andy Berliner and Rachel Berliner convey?
CEO and co-founder Andy Berliner and Rachel Berliner reject the accusations. They claimed that the Santa Rosa factory has 16 water stations, all fire doors are unlocked, and employees are free to use the restroom whenever they need to in an Instagram post from March. The corporation will spend an additional $50 million on safety-related projects over the following five years, the Instagram post adds. Amy’s responded to the claims of hazardous working conditions at the facilities in Santa Rosa and San Jose with a blog post on its website that echoed Berliner’s Instagram post. The denial of restroom breaks, union-busting, and a lack of drinking water, according to Rachel Berliner, is wholly untrue.
Rachel Berliner reportedly stated in a statement to the Vegetarian Times that he would be “happy to meet with any union representative once they earned the right to speak for our employees.” Teamsters, however, informed Sliced that Berliner has not yet consented to meet.