Union Picks Food Fight With Market

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just when you thought it was safe to shop for shallots and shiitake mushrooms, a national union has sent a pamphlet to 80,000 Los Angeles-area homes purporting to detail unsanitary conditions at froufrou favorite Bristol Farms.

But the culinary elite need not fear. An official at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services said Friday that it is still safe to buy radicchio and endive at the upscale groceries. Bristol Farms' food conditions are as good as--or better than--those at other supermarkets across the county, said Joe Nash, acting bureau chief of the department's district environmental services unit.

And if you look carefully at the union pamphlet, a line of fine print reads: "This leaflet is not intended to imply . . . that Bristol Farms stores are unsafe to shop in."

In much larger type are violations compiled from county health inspectors' reports on the chain. It's the sort of stuff that could give Martha Stewart nightmares.

"Water dripping onto raw seafood!" "Unclean refrigerators and freezers!" the pamphlet cries. "Sushi stored at temperature above safe levels!"

"Bristol Farms has received numerous violations from the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services," the pamphlet states. "These standards are enforced to protect the shopper and your family, as well as employees."

The document lists a phone number for the county health agency. Workers there said Friday that they have been peppered with calls since the pamphlet went out three weeks ago.

Officials at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 in Buena Park, where the pamphlets originated, say the materials are the latest step in an ongoing campaign to "educate" the public about sanitation conditions at Bristol Farms and other nonunion markets.

The consumer campaign, which has included union members telling shoppers at three Bristol Farms stores about the effects of not having union workers at markets, represents an increasingly popular labor tactic in recent years. Convinced that federal law gives employers too much leverage in union representation elections, some labor groups mount costly drives to tarnish a business' image, hoping the company will eventually recognize the union as its employees' bargaining agent.

"I think people that shop at Bristol Farms feel like they're getting the highest of quality from a gourmet market," said Rick Eiden, director of organizing at Local 324. "So I think the customers are more sensitive to these kinds of issues and violations. They're paying top dollar for their products; they want to make sure that they're safe."

Eiden said that nonunion markets generally pay workers less than union stores and that nonunion employees are less motivated to maintain a sanitary workplace. He added that there has been a growth of nonunion markets in Southern California--from Bristol Farms at the high end to stores such as Top Value, which targets working-class consumers.

Bristol Farms spokeswoman Jodi Taylor said that every worker in the six-supermarket chain is an "owner-partner" with stock options and added that even if the company's entry-level salaries are often half those of union markets, Bristol Farms uses far fewer part-time employees.

As for the safety record of a chain that prides itself on a lush stock of fresh and sometimes obscure foods--from shark steaks to dandelion greens--Taylor said of the union: "I think they're barking up the wrong tree."

"It's been pretty painful to have this happen to us," she said. "We're a small company; we're not used to the big chain tactics."

Nash, the health department official, said Bristol Farms fares well in comparison with other markets.

"There's nothing unusual about these inspection reports" that the union cites, he said. "You can go into any Lucky or any other place and find some of these typical problems."

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