The Amy’s Kitchen boycott follows allegations of workers being injured and intimidated

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Throughout its 35-year history, family-owned San Francisco-area brand Amy’s Kitchen has carved a profile as the antithesis of so many anonymous big food brands. It’s known for organic ingredients and its range of vegetarian and vegan-friendly canned and frozen options, from gluten-free bean burritos to Neapolitan-style thin-crust cheese pizzas.

The crispy mom-and-pop-next-door vibe is literal: The company was founded (in the dairy barn of the family’s Northern California ranch, of course) by CEO Andy Berliner and his wife Rachel, and named after their then-baby daughter. “If Amy can’t pronounce the name of the ingredient, you won’t find it on any of our labels,” Andy Berliner once told a reporter.

It has also long been known for publicly praising workers. “Caring for our employees and their families while respecting our planet has always been at the core of everything we do at Amy’s,” the company said in a February Facebook post.

But in recent weeks the company, which has grown from its pastoral roots to nearly 3,000 employees and facilities in California, Oregon and Idaho, has faced allegations that belie its image as a family-friendly, global-minded citizen. The company has faced allegations of unsafe working conditions at its Santa Rosa, California facility, which allegedly resulted in numerous injuries, and intimidation and abuse of workers. News reports of the complaints, including those from NBC and Eater, are fueling a boycott, an unusual development for a company with an enthusiastic and loyal customer base.

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So far, lawsuits against the company have included a complaint with the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health and a challenge to the company’s B Corp status, an award given to companies that “demonstrate high social and environmental performance”, “offer responsibility” . all stakeholders” and “show transparency”.

A representative for Amy’s did not respond to emails seeking comment, although the company posted a letter from Andy Berliner on its Facebook page last month, refuting several of the allegations against the company.

In the complaint, a longtime worker named Cecilia Luna Ojeda described injuries she and her colleagues allegedly suffered as a result of the demands made on them. The complaint concerns the speed at which workers are expected to complete their tasks: Workers said they should roll 10 to 12 burritos a minute, and an understaffed line should assemble up to 72 plates of food a minute.

Malfunctioning equipment, blocked emergency exits, workload leading to repetitive strain injuries, and lack of toilet breaks and access to clean water were also among the charges in the document, co-signed by Teamsters Local 665 chief officer Tony Delorio. “Workers are ignored, shamed or retaliated against for using the restroom,” the January complaint said.

Cal/OSHA then conducted an inspection of the facility, but has yet to publicly respond to the complaint or release its findings. However, in the Facebook post, Berliner denied the claims about toilet breaks, emergency exits and drinking water. Noting the company’s investments in security, he promised that the company would spend $50 million on security-related projects over the next five years. “Even one accident is too much and we will never stop working on improvements,” he wrote.

Delorio said workers at the company’s Santa Rosa plant initially tried to organize. In early discussions, however, he noticed that the workers weren’t just interested in the usual union “meat-and-potato” issues, such as higher wages or health insurance. “The injuries and working conditions were the worst our local had ever seen,” he said in an interview. “Usually people who want to organize say, ‘We want better pay or better conditions in general’ – they don’t lose a limb on the job.”

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The union initially focused on the safety grievances, he said, and then turned to organizing, a move that reportedly prompted Amy’s to hire Quest Consulting, a Las Vegas-based company that Tartine Bakery used unsuccessfully to organize a union to suppress organizational effort. While union efforts roiled workers at the Santa Rosa plant, news of the safety allegations began prompting consumers to target the brand.

Led by activists from the Food Empowerment Project and Veggie Migas, the boycott focuses on both individual consumers and grocery stores. So far, a handful of independent grocers have pulled Amy’s products off their shelves, including the Mandela Grocery Cooperative in Oakland, California; General Store of the Earth in Edmonton, Alberta; People’s Co-Op and Alberta Co-Op in Portland, Oregon/USA; and Cornucopia Natural Wellness Market in Northampton, Mass., according to organizers. They’re targeting other small and independent retailers, but no big chains seem to have joined so far.

In the Facebook letter, Berliner appeared to blame the Teamsters for the boycott. “Our employees are not calling for a boycott and are saddened and frightened by this negative campaign being waged by a union,” he wrote.

But Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, said the company’s public image makes it difficult for consumers to come to terms with its alleged behavior. “Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s cruelty-free,” she said. “Amy’s abuse of workers is completely at odds with her professed values.”

That split could mean increasing a boycott of Amy’s products, said Suneal Bedi, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Typically, the impact of a boycott isn’t so much a loss of sales as reputational damage, experts say, which can prompt companies to change behaviors that customers found problematic.

Bedi says Amy’s customers may still be more likely to feel unfairly treated than a customer of a less niche brand. One Amy’s customer “likes everything that Amy’s stands for and is probably willing to pay a premium for the product because of that,” he said. “As such, they are much more attuned to what is happening with the company and probably many companies in general that they patronize.”

Ornelas says she believes even longtime customers will be willing to give up their beloved burritos for something more important. “People hope that Amy’s will do the right thing because we miss her products,” she said. “But our desire to buy them does not trump workers’ rights.”

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