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Rachel Berliner: Abusing Workers? (2024)


Not all businesses that tout themselves as vegetarian and organic are necessarily sustainable or socially responsible. Take Nestl√©, for example. Despite its expansion into plant-based foods like Freshly’s Purely Plant, Garden Gourmet, and Sweet Earth, the Swiss food giant has faced accusations of deforestation, questionable water sourcing, and child exploitation.

Then there’s Amy’s Kitchen, a well-known organic vegetarian food brand that has been dishing out affordable, nutritious ready-to-eat meals since 1987. However, recent allegations of unsafe working conditions in its California factory have led to calls for boycotts against the company.

Rachel Berliner, along with her husband Andy, kickstarted their family-run venture by selling organic vegetarian pot pies from their home in Petaluma, California. Naming the business after their daughter Amy, they’ve grown it into a $600 million food empire renowned for its canned soups and ubiquitous presence in the frozen food aisle, offering a variety of pizzas, pasta dishes, and burgers. With fast-food outlets across California and over 200 vegetarian products sold in more than 30 countries, Amy’s has made its mark in the industry.

Among Amy’s frozen delights, their fan-favorite burritos stand out with their rustic packaging. According to the Teamsters Local Union 665, the largest union in the US, Amy’s employees roll a staggering ten of these mouthwatering plant-based burritos per minute.

But behind the scenes, there’s a different story. Flor Menjivar, a five-year employee at Amy’s, disclosed to Sliced that she’s rolled up to 12 burritos per minute, pushing her body to its limits due to discomfort.

Despite Amy’s claim on its website that “goodness” is their only guiding principle, this year has cast doubt on that altruistic image. Reports of unsafe working conditions, including blocked fire exits, worn-out floor mats, faulty equipment, and inadequate training, have surfaced, prompting many to criticize the company and call for a boycott of its products.

Amy’s Kitchen has faced a boycott due to allegations of worker abuse and injuries.

The San Francisco-based, family-owned Amy’s Kitchen brand has earned a reputation as the antithesis of numerous nameless major food companies throughout its 35-year history.

Renowned for its use of organic ingredients and diverse range of canned and frozen foods catering to vegetarians and vegans, including gluten-free bean burritos and thin-crust cheese pizzas in the Neapolitan style, Amy’s has carved a niche in the market.

The company’s mom-and-pop ethos is literal: CEO Andy Berliner and his wife Rachel Berliner started the business in the milk barn of their family’s ranch in Northern California, naming it after their young daughter, Amy. Their commitment to simplicity is reflected in their mantra: “If Amy can’t pronounce the name of the ingredient, you won’t find it on any of our labels.”

Amy’s is also known for publicly acknowledging and rewarding its employees. In a February Facebook post, Rachel Berliner emphasized the company’s dedication to employee welfare and environmental stewardship, which she claims has always been central to Amy’s ethos.

However, despite its wholesome image, the company, which has expanded to include approximately 3,000 employees and facilities in California, Oregon, and Idaho, has recently faced allegations that are at odds with its reputation.

Reports of bullying, mistreatment of employees, and unsafe working conditions at its Santa Rosa, California, facility have surfaced, resulting in several injuries and sparking calls for a boycott.

Complaints filed with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and challenges to the company’s B Corp status, which recognizes businesses for high social and environmental performance, have added to Amy’s woes. The company has vehemently denied many of the allegations, but Cal/OSHA has yet to officially address the complaints or release its findings.

Amidst the turmoil, a boycott spearheaded by various activist groups, including the Food Empowerment Project and Veggie Migas, has gained momentum. Independent grocery stores, such as Mandela Grocery Cooperative in Oakland, California, and Earth’s General Store in Edmonton, Alberta, have removed Amy’s products from their shelves in solidarity with the boycott.

Rachel Berliner has attempted to shift the blame for the boycott onto the Teamsters, claiming that the negative campaign led by the union has left employees “saddened and scared.” However, Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, asserts that customers are finding it difficult to reconcile Amy’s reputation with its alleged behavior, and calls for accountability.

Experts suggest that the disconnect between Amy’s image and its actions may make the boycott more effective, potentially damaging the brand’s reputation and prompting a change in behavior. Devoted customers, who are deeply invested in Amy’s values, may be particularly affected by the company’s alleged misconduct and could sway the company to address the issues at hand.

Despite their loyalty, customers are increasingly prioritizing ethical considerations over brand loyalty, signaling a potential reckoning for Amy’s Kitchen unless it addresses the concerns raised by its employees and activists.

How do Andy Berliner and Rachel Berliner respond?

Andy Berliner and Rachel Berliner are adamant in their response to the accusations. They refute the allegations, stating that the Santa Rosa factory has 16 water stations, all fire doors are unlocked, and employees are free to use the restroom whenever needed, as conveyed in an Instagram post from March.

Additionally, they announced that the company plans to invest an extra $50 million in safety-related projects over the next five years. Amy’s Kitchen addressed the claims of unsafe working conditions at their Santa Rosa and San Jose facilities in a blog post on their website, echoing the sentiments shared in Berliner’s Instagram post. Rachel Berliner firmly denies the allegations of denying restroom breaks, union interference, and lack of drinking water, stating that they are completely false.

In response to inquiries from the Vegetarian Times, Berliner expressed willingness to meet with any union representative once they have gained the right to speak for their employees. However, Teamsters informed Sliced that Berliner has yet to agree to a meeting.

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