U.S. alleges violations at Food Lion chain


A U.S. Department of Labor investigation turned up evidence of widespread violations of child labor laws at Food Lion Inc. stores across the South and mid-Atlantic states, a spokeswoman for the federal agency said yesterday.

Food Lion officials responded that the Department of Labor (DOL) had informed them of the allegations, and that news reports over the weekend about the investigation were exaggerated.

In what she described as a "huge investigation," DOL spokeswoman Jan Ellis said yesterday that the agency found "numerous violations" of child labor laws at Food Lion grocery stores, including evidence the company had improperly assigned teen-age workers to dangerous jobs at or near meat slicing and paper bailing machines.

Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, which dubs itself the nation's fast est-growing supermarket chain, has 10 stores in Maryland. It plans to open up another six in the next three months. Ms. Ellis declined to say whether any of the alleged violations involved Maryland stores.

Ms. Ellis wouldn't comment on previously published reports that the DOL had discovered up to 1,400 violations of the child labor laws at Food Lion stores. And she declined to say whether charges would be formally filed against the chain.

The agency normally allows a company a chance to respond to allegations before it takes final action, such as assessing a fine.

Food Lion's vice president for projects, Vincent G. Watkins, told reporters over the weekend that Labor Department officials had "one informal conversation" with the company months ago in which the department said 90 percent of the violations relating to hazardous conditions involved workers under the age of 18 "putting cardboard into non-operating bailers."

The company said that it treats 16- to 18-year-old employees according to the law, and that the labor agency leak was part of a union campaign to denigrate the non-union chain.

Ms. Ellis denied the government's investigation was in any way involved with any union. "There is absolutely no foundation" to Food Lion's charges, she said.

Food Lion has come under growing criticism for its treatment of workers and customers in recent months.

The Labor Department has already fined the company $300,000 for forcing some employees to do work without pay. Many of those workers have also filed private lawsuits against the company alleging Food Lion set up a system in which it assigned too much work for a shift, and then fired employees who asked for overtime to complete the tasks -- essentially forcing workers to work "off the clock."

And last week, a news producer for ABC's PrimeTime Live, using a hidden camera, filmed workers changing the date on old meat. The television expose also interviewed former workers who said they used diluted bleach to alter the smell and appearance of tainted foods.

Food Lion has sued ABC, which aired the program Thursday evening. The company charged the producer falsified shots and based the show on claims of people associated with the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Tom McNutt, president of the UFCW local in Rockville, said yesterday that his union had represented some of the workers with claims against Food Lion, but that it does not have a contract with Food Lion, whose workers are non-unionized.

Food Lion has 60,000 employees in more than 1,000 stores in 14 states.

In Maryland, it has stores in Lexington Park, Leonardtown, Salisbury, Smithsburg and Walkersville, and two each in Hagerstown and Ocean City.

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