Rodent saliva is on the dessert menu in Michigan’s prisons thanks to Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) decision to hand over prison food service to Aramark, one of the largest private prison food vendors in the country.
In July, 2014, an Aramark employee discovered an inmate who worked in the kitchen throwing the rodent-marred cakes into the trash. The Aramark worker instructed the inmate to stop tossing the desserts and start slicing off the parts that had visibly been “eaten or pawed at” and adding frosting to cover the cuts. “The Aramark employee allegedly ordered him to cut the sides of the cake off and serve it to the population,” reads one of the July 20, 2014 emails unearthed by a Freedom of Information Act request from the liberal group Progress Michigan. No illnesses resulted from the incident, the state spokesman told the site. In subsequent emails, staff ordered a full cleaning of the kitchen in question and sought a pest control crew.
Aramark, a food service vendor conglomerate that has described its prison contracts as a primary driver of company growth in previous correspondence with shareholders, fired the worker who had ordered the cake served on the following day, according to the emails.
The incident might like an isolated screwup by one reckless individual, but Aramark has earned a reputation for putting the company’s bottom line ahead of prisoners’ well-being in both Michigan and other states. Aramark once served rotten-smelling meatballs that had thawed in a broken freezer, though the company maintains they were not rotten. More than a hundred inmates at another Michigan prison were quarantined with a serious digestive bug that Michigan Department of Corrections officials said was probably linked to food. In Ohio last August, 1,000 incarcerated women threw their lunch trays out in protest after maggots were found on Aramark’s food serving line. The company’s operations have been accused of underfeeding inmates and been linked to prison unrest, including a 2009 riot in a Kentucky facility.
An Aramark spokeswoman dismissed the latest story as part of a “special interest” campaign by corrections officers’ unions and their allies and refused to discuss it further with the Detroit Free Press. But while returning prison food service to the public responsibility would certainly restore some public worker jobs, unions are not the only group who stands to gain from airing Aramark’s rat-chewed laundry. In addition to hundreds of health code failures and lurid security breeches involving Aramark workers, there is good reason to doubt Aramark’s ability to actually save taxpayers money as compared to the old public system.
The company’s bid to take over prison food was initially rejected because when it was analyzed under the original state bidding process it was found to provide negligible savings. Aramark protested, a state legislator pulled strings, and a second bid audit under new assumptions suddenly forecast a taxpayer dividend of $12 million to $16 million. Despite objections to the process from a former Aramark supporter, the new number carried the day and Aramark won the contract. A privatization expert previously told ThinkProgress that underbidding is common in these situations. After rescinding an initial $98,000 fine for chronic violations, Michigan ended up fining Aramark $200,000.
While it is too soon to tell how Michigan taxpayers are in fact faring under the deal, Aramark’s own financials are easier to see. The company reported about $150 million in after-tax profits on nearly $15 billion in revenues across its various categories of food service business in 2014. A separate report to shareholders from earlier last year gave particular credit for the strong overall corporate performance to the company’s corrections sector. Overall sales were down in the first quarter of this year, Aramark’s most recent report, but the company blames the dip on a calendar shift rather than on any actual downturn in business. The report continues to list corrections contracts as a source of strong sales growth for the company.