Union, Publix exchange charges on meat labels

Published Dec. 20, 1995|Updated Oct. 5, 2005

A group of women suing Publix Supermarkets Inc. over sex discrimination accused the grocery giant Tuesday of misleading customers about the freshness of meat that comes from its butcher shops.

The women told horror stories about how Publix routinely doctors up meat that is going bad, then sells it to unwary customers.

But Publix _ which has been engaged in a war of words with the group and a food workers' union that is helping the women _ blasted the charges as bogus and vindictive.

"I am saddened they have stooped to these kinds of shenanigans," said Clayton Hollis, the Lakeland-based grocer's vice president of public affairs.

The accusations were leveled at a news conference staged by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has been trying to organize Publix employees in Florida for more than a year.

The same union has bedeviled Food Lion Inc. for more than a decade. And many of the allegations leveled Tuesday are reminiscent of those made against Food Lion by former employees the union referred to ABC News.

Eight former Publix employees provided the ammunition with graphic descriptions of what they said they saw going on behind the meat counter.

The conference was clearly aimed at putting pressure on Publix to settle the sex-discrimination suit out of court, much like a handful of other recent cases in which supermarket chains agreed to hefty settlements.

The union and a consumer watchdog group linked to it said they would give Publix until Friday to voluntarily change its meat wrapping policy. Otherwise they vowed to unleash a "consumer education program" that includes negative advertisements. The ads, however, begin running today.

At issue are the so-called "sell-by" dates that grocers print on meats that are cut and wrapped at stores.

Grocers use them as an internal tool to be sure their inventory is fresh. But many customers have learned to rely on them even though experts say displayed meat can go bad well before the sell-by date.

There is no law regulating either sell-by dates or what grocers call "reworking" meat after it has not sold within a few days.

"The first thing I ever told friends about Publix was to steer clear of the meat that was coded with an R on the sell-by label," said Sherry Kilgore, who worked almost 10 years in a St. Augustine Publix.

At Publix, that means the meat was repackaged. And the original sell-by date has been changed.

For most grocers, including Publix, the sell-by date is three days after a product is first put out for sale.

If it hasn't sold by then, Publix pulls the package and inspects the meat, Hollis said. If it's still fresh enough to sell, it is rewrapped and put out again at the same price. If it doesn't sell on what is actually its fourth day on display, it is supposed to be thrown out, he said.

But the women _ all of them former deli managers and some of them former meat cutters or wrappers _ said Publix meat managers often violate the company's policy in pursuit of maximizing profits upon which their bonuses are based.

They told of meat being rewrapped and put back out for sale up to three times at their stores. They told of trimming or shaving off parts of steaks that went bad and rewrapping the remains for sale at the original price.

That's not all. They said they had been ordered to sprinkle baking soda on meats to kill bad smells, pour barbecue sauce or marinades on discolored meats or flip steaks when they were rewrapped so the dull gray side was out of sight.

"They'd wash the slime off and try to sell it again," said Noreen Curry, who worked eight years in a Melbourne Publix. "They never marked down the price. And if they marinated the meat, they'd even raise the price $1 a pound."

Several said they were reprimanded because they tried to throw out meat that looked or smelled rotten. They said they had complained repeatedly to their supervisors, but acknowledged that they never alerted government health inspectors because they feared reprisals.

In the deli, most of the cooked-on-site, takeout meat products (with the notable exceptions of fried and roast chicken) came from reworked meat at the meat counter, the women said.

"The deli is the dumping ground for the meat they cannot sell. I had to put out food I wouldn't eat," said Carolyn Dietz, who managed delis at three St. Petersburg stores and one in Spring Hill. "They wrote me up for refusing to put it out."

Supermarket profits rise and fall big time in the high-margin perishables departments such as meat and produce. So managers are under constant pressure to manage spoilage. Ground meats are often made from veal, beef and pork that had once been packaged in other forms. And delis often cook products culled from meat counters that are close to going bad.

But grocers, including Publix, say that happens only when the inventory gets out of balance. And all ground products are made from meats judged fresh after an inspection.

"Publix has some of the highest standards in the food retailing business," said Ed Crenshaw, Publix executive vice president of retailing.

In fact, Publix said its policy for rewrapping meats is based on the idea of inspecting to ensure meats are still fresh if they haven't sold in three days.

Other grocers such as Winn-Dixie have similar policies.

"But customers should know that sell-by dates are a guarantee of nothing," said Mickey Clerc, a spokesman for the Jacksonville-based chain. "Meat can go bad before a sell-by date. The appearance of the product is what you should go by. No grocery chain including Publix would tolerate (the practices the union alleged). Nobody in this business would risk losing a customer by putting out an inferior product."

Martha Roberts, deputy commissioner for food safety for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, agreed, citing a variety of more important unknowns not reflected by a sell-by date.

"What's more important is how the meat is handled, stored, and at what temperatures," she said, urging consumers to go by the meat's appearance.

"A steak refrigerated in some of the new chillers can safely have a shelf life of nine days," she said. "Normally unground meats will keep in your refrigerator for two or three days at 40 degrees. But at 38 degrees a good steak will last a day longer."

Two other area grocers, however, have stopped rewrapping most of their meats. And Albertsons has stopped grinding its own meats on site altogether.

After three days Albertsons throws out everything but steaks and chops, said Mike Read, a company spokesman. And they are tossed a day later if they don't sell at a $1 price reduction.

Kash n' Karry recently stopped repackaging, preferring instead to mark down meats by 50 percent at the first sign of discoloration or on the sell-by date.

"Our store guys caught violating the policy will be terminated," said Ray Springer, the company's chief financial officer.

The accusation

This "R" on Publix meat means the product was repackaged. The company says that the R designates the repackaged meat as still fresh but to be thrown out if it doesn't sell in one day. A group of former employees alleges the code means the meat was reworked to extend its shelf life. They say unsold meat is sent to the deli to be cooked and sold, and seldom is thrown away.