Investigation: Horse meat, private prisons and racism: the truth behind your Aspretto coffee

Investigation: Horse meat, private prisons and racism: the truth behind your Aspretto coffee

Uri Inspektor explores the ethical discretions of UCL’s catering company of choice

Next time you’re in the library look closely at the coffee you’ve just bought, sitting precariously between your laptop and the boy listening to music on his headphones just a little too loud at the next desk. Take a second glance at the label and you’ll see, in unassuming small print, the word “Sodexo”.

Sodexo is one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. Based in France, but active in 80 countries, it provides food services to countless universities, hospitals and the US military, including 2,300 sites in the UK and Ireland. The fact that it is a private, profit-chasing monolith of such wide reach has led to some hiccups in its standards to say the least.

Four years ago Sodexo became embroiled in the infamous ‘Horse Meat Scandal’, and was forced to withdraw all frozen beef products from British schools, military bases and prisons after equine DNA was found. It was then caught serving contaminated chicken to US Marines. Researchers from the University of Michigan have found that children in schools where Sodexo supplies meals had lower grades due to the “high fat and sugar” content of their foods. Next time you want a snack, perhaps venture further to Tottenham Court Road, lest your Aspretto pasty might knock a few marks off your dissertation.

But there’s an even stickier underside to the international Sodexo web that has seen it bear the brunt of at least nine boycotts from universities worldwide in the last decade. In 1994 Sodexo bought a large chunk of stock in the private prisons company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a body which earned notoriety for poor security and insufficient staff in many of its prisons – all for the sake of cutting costs and ballooning profits. Sodexo was its biggest investor by 2000.

That same year, The Prison Moratoriam Project led a group of universities in a public revelation of Sodexo’s stake in the CCA and the corrupt private correctional industry. Students put pressure on their schools to cut ties with Sodexo if it refused to pull the plug on the CCA. Students did not want their universities funding private prisons, financially incentivizing the imprisonment of as many individuals as possible, and contributing to immoral government lobbying. The “Not with Our Money” campaign worked, and Sodexo divested from CCA – however, at the same time it markedly increased ownership of private prisons in both Australia and the UK.

It became the joint owner of both Corrections Corporation of Australia and UK Detention Services Ltd. There are 14 private prisons in the UK and Wales, and private firms have been taking more control over prisons in recent years due to the privatisation campaign under the coalition government. Much like the CCA, most private firms aim for 8-10% profit margins, which means constantly cutting the amount of money put into prisons, and reducing staff wages and training. G4S, for example, tell prisoners to work 40 hour weeks on as little as £2 a day. Escape rates and violence between inmates is much higher in corporation-owned prisons.

In 2014 the government sold HMP Northumberland to Sodexo, with the promise that as a result the treasury would save £130 million over 15 years. Private prisons actually cost us more; we spend 23% of the entire prison budget on just those 14 we have. Sodexo’s scant funding and lax standards led to a riot in HMP Northumberland, and a BBC Panorama documentary showed inmates able to smuggle drugs into jail and record rates of escape. Instead of rehabilitating and coaching inmates so as to ensure their smooth assimilation into society after their terms, Panorama showed Northumberland prisoners engaging in impractical activities: notably, they were seen colouring in pictures of childrens’ TV character Peppa Pig.

What’s more, the multinational giant has a history of conscious systematic racism. In 2005 Sodexo was forced to pay $80 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed it had denied promotions to over 3,400 African American managers. The company has repeatedly overlooked thousands of qualified workers when considering promotions just for the colour of their skin. Some well-educated, highly experienced managers spent more than 20 years at the same job while their white counterparts climbed the corporate ladder.

There’s a strong case for anger. However, if you do choose to walk past Aspretto, most chain coffee shops aren’t much better, many avoiding taxes or subjecting their workers in the global south to brutal conditions; it seems there’s no escaping corruption. On a basic level, however, what this certainly shows us is that there is darkness in the way unregulated business functions that should be addressed and continuously investigated.

(Photo: Sodexo via House Rules)

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