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Is Whole Foods "Prison Tilapia" Good for American Aquaculture?

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On "Whole Story," the Whole Foods (WFMI) blog, Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator Carrie Brownstein writes:

"Unlike conventional grocers who may source tilapia from any old place as long as the price is right, Whole Foods Market sources all seafood, including tilapia, according to our Quality Standards."

One of the companies from which Whole Foods sources its fish is a Colorado aquaculture outfit called CCi, which raises and processes hormone-free tilapia.

And CCi is anything but "any old place."

See, CCi stands for Colorado Correctional Industries -- and its employees are convicted felons serving sentences for everything from murder to non-violent drug crimes.

"Whole Foods has a high demand for U.S. grown tilapia and we are the only operation in the U.S. certified to their standard," Dave Block, fish operations manager for CCi, told the Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain in 2009. "We strictly use water, salt and baking soda. It is all natural and even the feed is certified by Whole Foods."

Some background about the state's correctional industries from Steve Smith of the Colorado DOC:

In 1977, legislative bill CRS 17-24-101 created the Division of Colorado Correctional Industries within the Colorado Department of Corrections. This partnership works to effectively manage offenders in controlled environments which are efficient, safe, humane, and appropriately secure, and provide meaningful work and self improvement opportunities to assist offenders with community reintegration. Although we are a division within the Colorado DOC, we are a cash-funded entity with enterprise status that receives no tax monies for support. CCi programs result in a cost avoidance for the State of approximately $5,000 per inmate when compared to general-funded alternatives for training and employing inmates. With the employment of approximately 1,800 inmates at various DOC facilities located throughout Colorado, this equates to nearly $9,000,000 per year saved by our state taxpayers.

According to Denver Post reporter Kirk Mitchell, inmate-raised tilapia is provided "to a business that sells thousands of pounds of fish to Whole Foods Market, which then distributes them to 27 stores in the Intermountain West."

A bit of digging turned up an 2009 article from Cooperative Connections, a South Dakota monthly put out by a rural electric coop, which takes a look at aquaculture in the state, and makes mention of one George Waldner of the Hutterville Hutterite Colony.

"The colony jumped into aquaculture nearly three years ago and now produces regular 10,000-pound shipments of tilapia in a dedicated facility at the colony site near Stratford, S.D.," explains writer Tom Green. Fish raised at Hutterville are trucked to Colorado for Whole Foods, Inc. Through an arrangement with the Colorado Corrections Industry, the fish are processed by prison inmates to limit labor expense. Fillets are then rapidly shipped to retail markets."

Luke Meinser, regional seafood manager for Whole Foods, tells the Post's Mitchell that the prison-raised fish is "top quality" and he sees the operation as "a great program."

However, Colorado State Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, has concerns.

“I heard an outcry from business owners in the San Luis Valley that their aquaculture businesses were really suffering because they were in competition with the prisons on the tilapia fish-raising market,” he said at the beginning of the month.

It's not that they're afraid of competition. It's that they're afraid of competing with workers that earn roughly 60 cents a day. Though the actual cost is closer to the prevailing wage after factoring in the expense of maintaining a prison factory (supervision, downtime due to riots or other disturbances, etc.), such an arrangement ostensibly leaves quite a bit of room to maneuver when bidding for contracts, whether with a local seafood purveyor like Denver's Seattle Fish (which offers CCi trout), or a national giant like Costco (COST), Target (TGT), Safeway (SWY), or Walmart (WMT).

Professor Keith Bender, Ph.D., a labor economist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, weighed in with his thoughts via email earlier today.

"I guess I am of two minds on this," he wrote. "On the one hand, the program seems to be a good example of giving skills to the inmates that they could use for employment when they are released from prison. That it 'pays for itself' is an added bonus, in that no extra public funds are being used in the rehabilitation program.

"But while this may be the case, I do worry about the bigger picture. It does give a somewhat unfair advantage to either the prison system or the fish producers that use the prison to process the fish. This is particularly important in this industry, since (seemingly) the cost of imported fish is so much lower because of some combination of lower labor costs and less 'stringent' production quality. That is, the only way that local producers make a profit is by using a labor source that effectively is on a similar wage scale as foreign producers."

Questions about the presence of prison-run fish farms in the marketplace aside, what effect might the Colorado DOC's aquaculture program have on ex-prisoners looking for work once they get out?

"Furthermore (and maybe more importantly)," Bender said, "when these prisoners are released, they may find that their skills are not valued (at least locally) since the local fish producers will continue using the cheaper prison labor."
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