Wakfern (ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace, Gourmet Garage and Fairway Market)

    United States


    March 8 - 14, 2024
    2 inquiries
    0 replies

    Email sent to three media contacts for Wakefern.

    The email said: "We previously emailed Wakefern in August 2023, November 2023, and January 2024 regarding our investigation into the use of forced labor in China’s seafood processing industry. For several months, we have been conducting an investigation of the shrimp company, Choice Canning. We understand that Choice Canning has supplied shrimp to Wakefern under Wakefern’s own brands ‘Bowl & Basket’ and ‘Wholesome Pantry’, as well as under Choice Canning’s ‘Tastee Choice’ brand. Part of that investigation has involved an ongoing conversation with a former Choice Canning employee who managed a plant for the company in Andhra Pradesh, India. We began talking while they were still on staff with Choice Canning and we have continued the dialogue since they stepped down from their position with the company. This person has filed a whistleblower complaint to U.S. federal authorities.

    Through them and other channels, we have collected a variety of materials concerning Choice Canning, particularly regarding the company’s operations in Andhra Pradesh. These materials include: internal emails, WhatsApp messages, voice memos from senior management, security footage, audio recordings of meetings of Choice Canning staff, invoices from employment contractors, documentation produced by auditors for internal and external use, among other items. We have conducted an intensive review of all those materials. We have also interviewed current and former workers from the plant. We have also corroborated various findings using other documentation (including local news reports from Andhra Pradesh and industry analysis by non-governmental organizations), interviews with experts (such as shrimp industry groups and industry lawyers), and analysis of hundreds of videos taken in and around the Amalapuram plant. We also dispatched a videographer to the plant to visit one of the offsite peeling sheds and to inspect conditions at the Amalapuram compound.

    Our investigation found evidence of:

    Document falsification by Choice Canning management to mislead auditors about where it sources shrimp and the true count of employees on-site;

    Decisions by senior Choice Canning management to ship to customers in the U.S. - including Wakefern - shrimp that it knows to be antibiotic-positive;

    Contradictory documentation by SGS auditors, with SGS reports produced for Choice Canning’s internal use raising concerns about unsanitary production conditions, while SGS reports for external review raised no such issues and instead supported BRCGS and BAP certification of Choice Canning;

    Senior Choice Canning management approving the underpayment of workers, and complaints to local police by workers who did not receive payment or who received payment long after it was due;

    Choice Canning staff complaints about inadequate living conditions on-site, including worker dorms without proper bedding, or with unhygienic canteen food;

    Workers being prevented from leaving the site of their own volition;

    Choice Canning’s ongoing use of unsanitary off-site peeling sheds which it concealed from auditors;

    Understatement of the number of workers based at the plant and the temporary relocation of some of those workers when auditors visited so as to give a false picture;

    Repeated complaints from people living near Choice’s Amalapuram plant of pollution causing health problems in the community;

    “Gift” payments to local officials that some might view as bribes.

    Questions we have for Wakefern:

    1. While we understand that you might not be aware of any of the above issues, does Wakefern have any comment or statement to make in response to this email?
    2. Is Wakefern aware of any audits conducted at Choice Canning? If so, can you confirm who carried out the audit and when?

    Please let us know your responses to the above questions by close of business on March 14, 2024. Please also note that we will need for all our interactions to remain on record and in writing."

    A subsequent email was sent to Wakefern, saying: "The piece we are preparing to publish, which we believe to be in the public interest, will mention Wakefern (and ShopRite) briefly, but in no way accuses the company or any of its officers of doing anything wrong.

    We are writing, therefore, to alert Wakefern to matters uncovered by the investigation prior to publication of our article, and to offer the firm the opportunity to comment should they wish to. The contexts in which Wakefern is mentioned in the piece are as follows:

    1. Shoprite is mentioned as one of the firms supplied by Choice Canning.
    2. The article will also report the content of WhatsApp messages exchanged between staff at Choice Canning in February 2024 which suggest that a senior executive authorised the shipment of shrimp that contained antibiotic.

    We have seen an exchange which took place on February 1, 2024, in which the then manager of the Amalapuram plant said “Almost 10,000 pounds of Oscar in finished packaging. For Wakefern. What to do?” and his boss replied “Ship on one container”. We have been told by the then manager that ‘Oscar’ was a codeword used at Choice Canning to describe shrimp that had tested positive for antibiotics and seen internal messages in which it seems to be used in this sense. (Choice Canning denies the word had this meaning.)

    The article will also highlight some concerns about the plant at Amalapuram which include: Workers being paid less than the minimum wage. Workers living on the site not being allowed to leave without permission. Internal staff communications which suggest the plant is claiming all the hatcheries it buys from are Best Aquaculture Practice (BAP)-certified, whereas in fact they are not. Apparent attempts to mislead auditors about staffing levels at the factory. The use of unaudited off-site peeling sheds.

    As I said, the piece will cast no blame on Wakefern. But we wanted to give you the opportunity to provide a response or comments which we will consider for inclusion in the piece. Please reply by 1pm ET on Monday March 18 if you would like us to do this."

    Future correspondence will be added here as this conversation continues.