Explain business ethics, and how they are applied today.
April 17, 2011 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Is my new employer (a spice company) acting ethically in its business practices?

I recently got hired at a spice company who sells spice blends to restaurants. In order to save/make more money, they are switching to using oleoresins/salt mixtures to replace ingredients in a lot of their blends.

My understanding is that you take an extract of a spice, lets say nutmeg and blend it with salt to make nutmeg oleoresins which you use in blends instead of nutmeg. Some spices you can literally use 50 parts salt to one part resin to create 50 parts of resin flavored salt, you can see where tons of money can be saved. 50 is extreme, but the standard lies somewhere around 15, I think.

My concern is that we recently renewed contracts with a few restaurant chains and are switching to the oleoresins without informing the customers. The owners insure us that this is standard industry practice but I am not so sure, being new to the industry.

I welcome both general answers and industry specific answers. I have voiced my concerns with the owner and have gotten the "everyone else does it" answer but it does not sit well with me.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ethics aside, you probably want to anonymize this and remove some of those details....

If your employer is treading in ethically-grey areas, they're going to have no problem firing your ass for posting this.
posted by schmod at 4:49 PM on April 17, 2011 [8 favorites]

Caveat: i have not *actual* expertise here, this is just my opinion!

So, this does seem ethically fishy to me, for a couple of reasons. (1) They are selling a product on false pretenses - saying they are selling spices when in fact they are selling salt. (2) Restaurants have an obligations (sometimes legally) to inform their customers what is in their food. Restaurants who buy from your company won't be able to do that accurately.
posted by Kololo at 4:52 PM on April 17, 2011

Legally, it depends on how the contracts are written. I'd hope and expect they've had lawyers okay this move because if they're intentionally misrepresenting their product, they'll be in a bit of trouble. FWIW, I think this sounds shady, but I'm not in the industry.
posted by smorange at 5:09 PM on April 17, 2011

If you're selling seasoning blends in the US then the actual spice content does not need to be called out (so therefore, the labeling does not need to change). Of course, if something else has changed (higher salt content, relative concentration of ingredients changing) then the label does have to change.

In my opinion, the ethical thing to do is to report that there's been a formulation change in the product and advise the customers to test their recipes and ensure that it still works for their needs. But I can also see why a vendor would not do so if they believe that their change has not made a functional difference to the product. Per the FDA (in my cursory reading) it's not misrepresentation to call the oleoresins "spice" and so therefore, by the letter of the law, they aren't doing anything wrong. (That's depending that they aren't misrepresenting in some other way, like advertising that mentions the "high quality herbs and spices" or some such).

You can argue letter vs spirit of the law all day long, but if it's an otherwise good company, complying with all manufacturing, labeling, and employment regulations, you might want to let this go. You could suggest notifying the customers as I mention above. If you feel that they are misrepresenting the product in some other way, then you'll have to find a way to deal with that.

I'm not pro business, but I work in manufacturing, and in my opinion there's nothing wrong with a company that meets regulatory requirements and doesn't go beyond that. You would be surprised to learn how many companies don't meet regulations.
posted by cabingirl at 5:11 PM on April 17, 2011

I believe the question would be if the ingredients were not listed correctly on the label. There is a label on the product, correct?
posted by tomswift at 5:12 PM on April 17, 2011

I mean this completely not in a snarky way, but do you actually know anything about the process? Because that's not what an oleoresin is.

If you are concerned, ask them.
posted by gjc at 5:21 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another thought: some restaurants offer/advertise low-sodium dishes. "Heart-healthy meals" made with spice blends with considerably higher salt content would then no longer meet original standards without chefs, owners or customers knowing.
posted by likeso at 5:26 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's bad.

But at least you're not extending cayenne powder with red lead.
posted by jamjam at 5:40 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I sort of agree with cabingirl here. If your company is selling a legally labelled and manufactured product, then it is up to the customers to determine if that product satisfactorily meets their needs. If it does, they will continue to buy it, if it does not, they will not. I might liken it to a pharmacy selling generic drugs. If Teva, Mylan, and American Regent all sell a generic form of a given drug, the pharmacy will probably purchase and distribute the cheapest version. If one of those versions is not suitable (say, it is an odd shape, and so it is not easy to halve or quarter) the pharmacy will not use that particular brand. Now, if a particular client needed the name brand formulation for some reason, it would be up to them (and their doctor) to ensure that they are not given a generic replacement. If your customers are concerned about exactly what percentage of spice they are getting in the spice blend they are purchasing, they need to investigate that and purchase from a supplier that meets their needs. If all they care about is getting the cheapest "Nutmeg flavored spice blend" for their apple pies, then it sounds like your company might be a good supplier.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:17 PM on April 17, 2011

Per the FDA (in my cursory reading) it's not misrepresentation to call the oleoresins "spice" and so therefore, by the letter of the law, they aren't doing anything wrong. (That's depending that they aren't misrepresenting in some other way, like advertising that mentions the "high quality herbs and spices" or some such).

I'm not a US lawyer or food labelling expert, but from my reading, also cursory, of the policy guide I think it only gets them off the hook if they're labelling their products generically as "spice", which sounds unlikely. It goes on to say:
Section 403(i)(2) requires naming of individual spices, flavorings or coloring ingredients only in case of articles sold as such.
So I wouldn't be so sure that filler with added nutmeg oleoresin can be labelled as "nutmeg", although apparently if you label it as "spice" that's okay. Personally, if I was fraudulently sold nutmeg-flavoured salt with "nutmeg" written on it I would be pissed off enough to never buy anything from that company again, although then again I'm not entirely sure I could tell the difference and it sounds like your employer is counting on that.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:13 AM on April 18, 2011

please please, ask the mods to anonymize this and delete the answer that identifies you as the OP. Seriously, ask.metafilter is extremely googleable
posted by Blasdelb at 8:22 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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