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In Defense of Ethical Standards

Aramark made a special debut in the Cavalier Daily last night through its Vice President of Corporate Communications, Karen Cutler. Cutler responded to an opinion piece by UVA student Katherine Smith, one which called for UVA students to halt relations with Aramark until the food corporation pursues more ethical business practices in regard to the prison-industrial complex.

Cutler’s response is not an opinion piece, but instead, strategic damage control designed to placate one of Aramark’s most vocal clients: young, liberal University students. The first sentence of Cutler’s piece decries anti-Aramark “propaganda.” It serves as nothing more than an inadequately cited cover-up and dismissal of unethical business practices that reach far beyond the prison-industrial complex. After accusing Smith of making unfounded claims, Cutler chose to copy and paste unsourced claims verbatim from an Aramark webpage. By doing this, the meat of Cutler’s argument is inauthentic: it’s a template directly pulled from Aramark’s website.

The meat of Cutler’s argument is almost verbatim to Aramarks ‘Get the Facts’ page.

Cutler then mentions recognition from the Ethisphere Institute, describing it as a “leading international think tank dedicated to best practices in business ethics,” but fails to note that the Ethisphere Institute is a for-profit corporation whose ethical rating system is entirely self-nominated. If you dig some more, you’ll find that previous news outlets have already expressed their apprehension surrounding the corporation.

Now, Ethisphere does have a part in negotiating the process since they survey companies and score corporations on several factors, such as litigation history and codes of conduct. But, most of the information is provided by the companies themselves in a questionnaire that, according to Ethisphere, should take only 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Ethisphere then requests supporting documentation, but even their own CEO acknowledged that the rating system is imperfect.








And nothing screams ethical like a registered trademark: “World’s Most Ethical Companies®”.

Cutler claims that Smith’s piece is founded on misinformation, but does not detail which claims are false. Cutler states that the sources of those claims are from an unnamed “2016 documentary and ongoing activism” around the prison-industrial complex. We believe she is referring to 13th, the critically-acclaimed documentary that shed light on the many problems within our prison system and the racial disparities that continue to beleaguer it.

Her next claims are irrelevant, mentioning that Aramark only provides “meals to offenders in state and county correctional facilities in the United States,” as if these facilities are somehow not a part of the prison-industrial complex. Cutler then tries to distance Aramark from the claims in Smith’s article by placing that blame on the correctional facilities, saying they “[determine] the nutritional specifications for the menus we create (calories, portions, religious meals),” implying that Aramark is only involved in getting the meals to the facilities and not in their preparation. But Aramark services in prisons are not unlike Aramark services in the dining halls here at UVA. Aramark employees are on staff supervising or preparing and serving food to inmates, with the added flexibility for inmates to serve food in some facilities. Despite the distance Cutler references, Aramark is directly involved in the handling and service of food to inmates in the prisons they serve.

Furthermore, Cutler fails to acknowledge that the many claims Smith cited have gone to trial or have been settled outside of court in recent years (you can find out more about them here, though this website only holds information up to 2015). Nor does Cutler deem it necessary to provide evidence that supports her claim that Smith’s sources are untrue. For someone who only wishes to “contribute to this conversation so that you can form an educated opinion,” Cutler does little to contribute anything more than hollow statements and uncorroborated claims.

Over 200 lawsuits were filed against Aramark by inmates in prisons for which Aramark was the vendor between 2013 and 2015, but little has been said about their own litigious leanings. Aramark has threatened whistleblowers with legal action in the past. Progress Michigan, a nonprofit liberal advocacy group that Smith mentioned in her piece, proposed an anti-Aramark ad campaign that included visual evidence of maggots. Aramark executive vice president Stephen R. Reynolds “demand[ed]” that Progress Michigan “cease and desist from communicating, publishing, airing or causing others to air” the ads, claiming they were materially false.

Questions surrounding Aramark’s failure to pay their employees a living wage is also a paramount concern– one that deserves its own piece and will come out in our next issue. We’ve gathered a handful of Aramark employees and what we’ve learned is that the corporation is anything but ethical.

Given the continuous firing of employees and lawsuits against the company for little training on food preparation, sexual harassment, transportation of contraband into prisons, and serving rotten/spoiled/infested food to inmates, Reynolds’ decrying of these allegations as false seems naive at best. A simple Google search of “Aramark lawsuits,” will prompt a treasure trove of unethical business practices condoned by Aramark supervisors across the country.

As a publication, we can understand the newsworthy component behind receiving such a letter. As you can derive, we do not agree with Cutler’s statement, but we do empathize with the Cavalier Daily’s desire to educate the student body that such a letter exists — this is understandable and worthwhile. However, publishing a piece in the Cavalier Daily not written by a UVA student, and then labeling it as an opinion piece over social media, is not only misleading, but raises alarming ethical concerns. Instead of publishing it as such, might we suggest trying a news piece next time? At the very least, an indication near the top of the article, rather than the bottom, should be made to denote that the piece was written by Aramark itself. Substituting ‘ARAMARK’ for ‘LETTER’ may work, but as one Facebook user noted, that may be a bit too obvious.

From one publication to another we’ll say this; selling articles in addition to selling advertisements isn’t a good look. Especially for a publication that loves to tout its status as the number-two public college paper in the nation.