Blue Apron hired lobbyists to push back against a California State Assembly bill aimed at expanding state-mandated food safety training to include employees in the emerging meal-kit delivery space.
The goal of the bill is to require employees of these businesses to obtain food-handler cards, a type of food safety certification already required in restaurants and other food-prep jobs. The bill is sponsored by the UFCW, a major food and grocery union, and authored by Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who represents the district where one of Blue Apron’s facilities is located.
"We're acknowledging that there's a growth of a new way of handling food, and raising the question: Why not utilize the same best practice that we used in traditional food handling to ensure that these new companies are handling food in good ways, and keep the public safe?" Thurmond told BuzzFeed News.
But Blue Apron has “concerns” about the bill. The company hired a lobbyist, Mercury Public Affairs' Duncan McFetridge, to represent it at a Health Committee hearing on Thurmond’s bill last week. “We see this as being redundant, superfluous, and unnecessary to the business, and moreover, we frankly don’t see how this language as crafted even touches us,” he said at the hearing.
Blue Apron told BuzzFeed News via email that it doesn’t formally oppose the proposed legislation. In fact, the company argues, as written, the bill doesn’t even apply to it, because Blue Apron is a food-processing facility, not a food retailer. It says food-processing facilities have higher safety standards than food retailers and that it hired McFetridge to "advocate for the continued statutory distinction" between the two.
Furthermore, Blue Apron said it follows both state and federal regulations, and that food safety is "paramount"; it said it provides “targeted instruction on areas such as temperature control, personal hygiene, and cleaning and sanitation,” and that it “also provides detailed training in allergen controls, equipment handling, inventory management, and other food safety practice.”
The language of the bill and which companies it pertains to will continue to be debated as it makes its way through the California State Assembly; it will be heard by the Appropriations Committee sometime in May.
But the union that sponsored the bill said in a press release that it is aimed at companies "like Blue Apron, Plated and Gobble," which it says need additional oversight.
"This bill is necessary to help clarify that companies like Blue Apron need to be regulated by the state. They can't hide behind federal regulation, or that they are only a food-processing entity. They're not — they advertise directly to consumers," a spokesperson for the union told BuzzFeed News.
So far, Blue Apron is the only meal-kit company that’s weighed in on the proposed food-safety training regulation — but it’s not the only one that could be affected. At least 10 similar companies operate distribution centers in California, including HelloFresh, Home Chef, Plated, and Purple Carrot.
At least two of Blue Apron’s competitors with facilities in California — El Segundo’s Chef’d and Stockton’s Gobble Inc. — told BuzzFeed News that they already require their employees to get food-handler cards. A third, Sunbasket, said if the bill passed in California, it would readily comply.
“We’re not opposing it,” said Gobble CEO Ooshma Garg of the legislation. “And prior to this bill being proposed, we’ve been abiding by these standards. When you walk in the door, you can see a book of everyone’s food-handler cards.” Purple Carrot declined to comment on this story; Plated, HelloFresh, Amazon, Good Eggs, Marley Spoon, and Home Chef did not respond to a request from BuzzFeed News. The food-handler training program entails a small fee and a short online training course.
Prior to authoring this bill, Assemblyman Thurmond toured Blue Apron’s facility in Richmond. With regard to the food-handler card program, Thurmond told BuzzFeed News, "I think it is really good training."
“I think it's a skill they could use at Blue Apron, or anywhere in the industry. Being able to have a food-handler card is a real tangible skill. To me, that's a way you can earn more money. You can say, ‘I have experience handling food in a way that is safe.' I think it would be a good thing for anybody that's handling raw food, or anyone that's working in the food-handling sector,” he said.
Thurmond also told BuzzFeed News that he asked to review Blue Apron’s training materials but had not yet received a copy.
Though Blue Apron has struggled at times to meet standards set by workplace health and safety regulators — it is currently contesting a total of 14 violations and more than $18,000 in proposed penalties from the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety — the company has passed every food safety inspection it has undergone. Blue Apron first registered with and was inspected and approved by the California Department of Public Health in October, following a BuzzFeed News investigation published the same month. The company is reportedly planning to go public this year.
“We're not opposed to innovation,” Thurmond said during last week’s hearing. “This is a new area for how raw food is handled and packaged, and we're saying this is an opportunity to err on the side of caution and provide additional training to those who are working in this new area.”
You can view a recording of the California State Assembly Health Committee hearing for Thurmond's food-safety regulation bill below.