If you’ve ever had that pained feeling of being robbed at a Whole Foods checkout because their premium food items are so ridiculously expensive, you may want to trust that gut feeling.
An investigation by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs reveals that the grocery chain’s stores in New York have indeed been overcharging customers on pre-packaged items priced by weight. A DCA press release explained:
“DCA tested packages of 80 different types of pre-packaged products and found all of the products had packages with mislabeled weights.
“Additionally, 89 percent of the packages tested did not meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that an individual package can deviate from the actual weight, which is set by the U.S. Department of Commerce.”
According to the probe data, obtained by New York Daily News, overcharges ranged in amounts from 80 cents for a package of pecan panko to $14.84 for one container of coconut shrimp. The most common violations occurred in pre-packaged food with identical weights and prices like vegetable platters, chicken tenders and berries.
DCA Commissioner Julie Menin said, “Our inspectors told me it was the worst case of overcharges that they’ve ever seen.”
This is also not the first time Whole Foods has been hit with this particular violation — the company’s Columbus Circle location has had more pricing violations than any other store in the whole city with 240 violations over 28 inspections in the last five years. Last year, according to the Daily News, Whole Foods of California ended up paying $800,000 in fines for similar violations.
According to one current Whole Foods employee who spoke to Gothamist under the condition of anonymity, the issue of overcharging is simply due to incompetence and because the company removed the job positions that were responsible for price checking due to budget cuts.
“So they replace these people who actually know what the f*ck they are doing by making the position a part time one with cheaper employees under the umbrella of a different department.”
The employee also said that team leaders were told to be extra vigilant during the time leading up to the investigation being released to the public, but the part-time staff in charge of price checking did not have adequate training.
Whole Foods has responded to the findings of the investigation:
“We disagree with the DCA’s overreaching allegations and we are vigorously defending ourselves. We cooperated fully with the DCA from the beginning until we disagreed with their grossly excessive monetary demands. Despite our requests to the DCA, they have not provided evidence to back up their demands nor have they requested any additional information from us, but instead have taken this to the media to coerce us. Our customers are our number one stakeholder and we highly value their trust in us.”
The full investigation actually included 120 grocery stores citywide with more than 77% of them hit with at least one violation, although Whole Foods was the most outstanding offender.
It is not known how much Whole Foods will be fined yet, but the anonymous employee believes it will be much more than the California investigation fine.
According to the DCA, “The fine for falsely labeling a package is as much as $950 for the first violation and up to $1,700 for a subsequent violation. The potential number of violations that Whole Foods faces for all pre-packaged goods in the NYC stores is in the thousands.”