By Rashi Kesarwani
OC Voice Staff Writer
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month, the city of Huntington Beach honored the opening of the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, a sleek new grocery store described as a cross between 7-11 and Trader Joe’s, on 16672 Beach Boulevard at Terry Drive.
Fresh & Easy’s U.K. based parent company, Tesco, markets itself as a socially responsible, green and healthy, alternative to established grocery chains. Its smaller Fresh and Easy stores offer a variety of prepared foods that are billed as fresh and healthy.
And the local media has celebrated the chain’s Huntington Beach opening without challenging that image. One review in the Huntington Beach Independent gushed about the “successful overseas reputation that Tesco has established,” and that, “The meat, fish and produce were actually fun to look at.”
But other media reports from abroad indicate that Tesco’s track record has been anything but “fun to look at.”
After grocery workers from across Great Britain voiced their food safety concerns to the BBC television program Whistleblower, two reporters worked undercover at Tesco and another chain to investigate the allegations. Their secret video footage revealed systematic safety violations at Tesco’s fish and meat counters.
Seafood was defrosted and refrozen, a process than can lead to salmonella poisoning. Expiration labels on meat were often missing or changed to reflect a later date. Knives were not disinfected after they were inappropriately used to pry open a floor drain or slice raw liver. In one instance, expired steaks were put through the grinder to be sold as “fresh” ground meat.
One Tesco manager admitted, “I can’t afford to throw away [expired food] because that is what they [corporate bosses] keep using to judge my performance. If I keep throwing things away, I’ll be in trouble with them, and I don’t want any of it.”
No accusations of tainted food at the company’s recently opened U.S. stores have surfaced so far. At the local Fresh & Easy, store manager Cindi Hicks says all the meats are “pre-done”; that is, shipped to the store and sold to the customer in the same packaging.
Still, quality concerns abound when it comes to Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer. In 2004, the chain’s flagship store in Great Britain was fined after it was found to be infested with mice and selling moldy apples, Gouda cheese and Thai rice.
In 2006, garlic labeled as organic in Tesco stores had been found to contain pesticide residues. The Guardian reported that the chemical discovered, carbendazim, is a possible carcinogen and suspected hormone disruptor.
The controversy surrounding Tesco’s practices in Great Britain has prompted concerns here in Southern California. Researchers in the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College in Los Angeles published a 68-page report last summer in which they criticized Tesco’s record on labor relations, environmental issues and its promise of improving access to healthy food in low-income communities.
The study claims that Tesco has ambitions to surpass Wal-mart to become the largest grocery chain in America. And with 30 stores opened across California, Nevada and Arizona in 2007 and 170 more slated for 2008, Fresh & Easy is certainly poised to become a major player in the grocery business.
According to the UEPI report, the company plans to staff its Fresh & Easy markets primarily with part-time labor. Although the company reportedly pays $10 an hour, well above California’s $8 minimum wage, reduced hours may prevent employees from earning a living wage.
Local store manager Cindi Hicks says all employees at her branch work at least 20 hours per week and that “everyone qualifies” for company health benefits. Employees are split “about even” between part-time and full-time staff.
Hicks directed the Voice the company’s P.R. division for details, but repeated efforts to contact the Fresh & Easy main office for further comment were unsuccessful.
But the American backlash against Fresh & Easy may have already begun. Last November, when Tesco held a meeting for U.S. and British investors and money managers at a Santa Monica hotel, they were met by approximately 100 activists from a coalition of community groups.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, which comprises 25 community groups, protested Fresh & Easy’s refusal to meet to discuss a proposed “community benefits agreement.” It sought to bind the food retailer to certain wage levels, affordable health benefits and greenhouse gas reduction. The coalition also questioned Fresh & Easy’s commitment to open stores in low-income neighborhoods, where fresh produce is often scarce.
The H.B. Fresh & Easy sits between a middle class neighborhood to the east of Beach Boulevard and the low income Oakview neighborhood to the west.
A driving force behind the protest was the company’s unwillingness to talk with union representatives about allowing its workforce to sign union representation cards.
A Fresh & Easy spokesperson responded, cryptically, “Any outside [union] representation will be up to our employees.”
Gilbert Davila, an organizer for Local 324 of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) union, points out that Tesco is “100 percent union in the U.K.” He adds that UFCW members are not “out talking to [Fresh & Easy] workers, asking them if they want to join the union.” But, he says, they are “out there in front of the stores or out there in the community itself” to inform shoppers about “who Tesco really is.”
Davila says non-union stores like Fresh & Easy compel unionized grocery chains to wonder during contract negotiations: “Why do we have to pay $18 an hour when the checker across the street is only making nine or $10 an hour?”
Davila explains that non-union wages leave workers with just enough for rent and food. “If they have children, they can’t buy [health] insurance. They have to decide whether to take their kid to the doctor or buy groceries,” he says.
The city’s economic development director, Stanley Smalewitz, says he sought out the Fresh & Easy chain because he felt the neighborhood oriented concept would be an “ideal candidate for downtown,” although that prime location was ultimately snagged by CVS, a drug store chain.
Smalewitz says he was unaware of Tesco’s negative publicity and that he would “go after” any company if he learned of wrongdoing. But the city lacks a comprehensive set of standards for corporations that do business with the city.