OSHA Files Whistleblower Lawsuit Against Whole Foods

The federal agency claims that Whole Foods’ Miami store fired an employee for complaining about a ruptured sewer line.
Thu December 8, 2011 8:45 pm
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Putting an unfortunate spin on “stinky cheese,” the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has filed a lawsuit against the Austin-based retail grocery chain Whole Foods Market, alleging a whistleblower violation. OSHA’s release says that in November 2009, Whole Foods’ Miami Beach location suffered a ruptured sewer line, which was:

Spilling into the workplace including, but not limited to, the specialty cheese department and the restrooms. The employee then called the company’s anonymous tip line, since no corrective actions had been conducted by store management. On Nov. 5, the worker contacted another manager expressing concern that the problem had not been corrected. Whole Foods then fired the worker on Nov. 5 for allegedly making false and malicious statements to the effect that management had not taken any steps to redress the sewage contamination at the workplace.

The entire story was first broken by Miami New Times at the time the incident occurred. In that piece, the anonymous employee, whose job involved marketing, said the store used air fresheners to cover up a problem they refused to fix. Two other employees were quoted by name in the piece backing up her story about how bad the area smelled. But Whole Foods told the paper that the parts of the store affected by the problem were properly closed off and professionally cleaned.

News of OSHA’s lawsuit prompted Miami New Times to revisit the story; it then made its way to Gawker. Both outlets used the term “poop leak” in their headlines.

When Eater National also ran a piece, calling it the “Cheese Dept. Sewage Firing,” a guest commenter identifying themselves as “Libba from Whole Foods” posted a response denying any wrongdoing, both in terms of the incident itself and the termination of the employee.

“The entire area was closed for complete cleaning as soon as the problem was discovered, and was cleaned and sanitized again the next day by a professional cleaning service,” the commenter wrote. "At all times, the areas of the store open to customers were clean and safe.” The commenter also said that the terminated employee was "not the first or only person to report the problem.”

Wrote Kansas State University food safety professor at his appropriately named Barfblog, “Despite the efforts of Whole Foods management to view the situation through rose-scented glasses, and a lot of air freshener, raw sewage is neither an aromatic nor safety enhancement.”

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