Food

Olive Garden's Chief Got a Leadership Award—Even Though His Company Is Bad for Workers, Animals and the Environment

Fifteen groups have opposed an award to Gene Lee, the CEO of Darden, the world's largest restaurant company.

WESTMINSTER, COLORADO/U.S.A. - APRIL 15, 2012: The exterior of an Olive Garden restaurant, showing the Olive Garden sign and logo.
Photo Credit: ljh images / Shutterstock.com

The CEO of America’s largest restaurant chain, Darden, is being honored today by Nation’s Restaurant News for “outstanding leadership, solid company performance and dedication to giving back”—despite the company’s record of misleading the public and its shareholders about the quality, sourcing and sustainability of its ingredients.

The award gives Darden a huge PR boost to fatten its bottom line, while it serves up unhealthy meals that rely on the mistreatment of animals, workers and the environment. With more than 1,500 restaurants (including the ubiquitous Olive Garden chain) serving 320 million meals every year, Darden’s purchasing and menu decisions have a huge impact on public health and our environment, and on the workers who produce and serve our food.

Days before CEO Gene Lee is set to receive the Golden Chain Award, a coalition of 15 environmental, animal welfare and worker justice organizations with over 10 million supporters sent a letter to Nation’s Restaurant News, expressing dismay over the award.

The award will be presented during the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators (MUFSO) conference this evening. “Instead of marking progress, Nation’s Restaurant News’ honor encourages more restaurant chains to use misleading rhetoric instead of meaningful action to address the serious social and environmental issues facing our food system,” said Anna Meyer, food campaigns manager with Green America.

Darden’s not-so-golden deeds

The coalition says Lee “has failed to show excellence in leadership in terms of improving conditions for employees, protecting the environment, fostering humane treatment of farm animals, or promoting the health of Darden Restaurants’ customers. Although Darden’s 2014 Citizenship Report and its ‘People, Planet & Plate’ pledge tout a strong commitment to social responsibility, a closer look shows a major gulf between the company’s rhetoric on animal welfare, healthy food, workers’ rights and environmental protection, and the actual impacts of Darden’s food sourcing and labor management practices.”  

The letter pinpoints several ways that Darden’s actions fall far short of “outstanding leadership” celebrated in Lee’s award:

  • Darden undermines public health by buying meat from suppliers that routinely use antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes to compensate for unsanitary farming practices. Darden’s subsidiary Olive Garden received an “F” grade for its weak antibiotics policies in Chain Reaction II, a report released last month by numerous public interest groups;

  • Approximately 20 percent of Darden’s hourly workforce is paid a paltry $2.13 per hour, and tens of thousands of workers are paid only minimum wage and are employed part-time with no sick leave, while CEO Lee reportedly received a 46 percent boost in salary to $6.1 million this year;

  • Darden reportedly purchases poultry products from Simmons Foods and Sanderson Farms, companies with numerous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violations. The USDA has repeatedly cited both companies for egregious acts of animal cruelty, such as boiling birds alive and improperly desensitizing them before cutting their throats.

Darden’s greenwashed meals

Under market pressure to enhance its good citizen image and keep sales humming, Darden dishes out heaping servings of empty rhetoric about its commitments to social responsibility. Darden’s best-known chain, Olive Garden, has consistently responded to consumer concerns about its sourcing practices by claiming, “We’re committed to providing our guests with nutritious, quality and responsibly-sourced food, supporting and developing our team members, giving back to our communities and protecting the natural environment.”

With Lee at the helm, Darden Restaurants last month blocked a shareholder proposal that would have required its meat suppliers to stop using routine antibiotics. The company blatantly misled shareholders in its official response, claiming that its adherence to voluntary FDA guidelines addressed the shareholders’ concern about restricting the routine use of antibiotics important in human medicine.

But as Darden and Lee know, following FDA Voluntary Guidance 213 does little to stop the routine overuse of antibiotics, since it only restricts drug use for growth promotion. Because most antibiotics are used for both growth promotion and illness prevention, Darden’s suppliers will continue feeding animals daily doses of these drugs, rather than improving poor diets and unsanitary conditions. The misuse of these drugs in animal agriculture is a significant contributor to the rise of antibiotic resistance, a leading global human health crisis.

In another fit of greenwashing, Darden’s Food Principles proclaim that the company is “mindful of the sustainability of ingredients, including the social and environmental benefits of the food we buy for generations to come.”

These false and unsubstantiated words appear to be a reaction to the Good Food Now! Campaign launched in October 2015 by seven public interest groups. The campaign delivered a petition in May 2016 with over 130,000 signatories urging the company to improve its sourcing and labor practices by adhering to a set of “Good Food Principles.” 

Darden claims, “Great food starts with quality ingredients…that are sustainably sourced.” But the company has failed to set specific goals to reduce the environmental impacts of its menu items, particularly the meat and dairy products which produce most of Darden’s energy, water and carbon footprint. Participating in toothless industry–led initiatives such as the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef does not amount to meaningful improvements.

Furthermore, Darden’s claim of serving “nutritious, quality and responsibly-sourced food” is highly questionable. As the Center for the Science and the Public Interest writes, Olive Garden is a better place to go for calories than nutrition: “Leave it to America’s second biggest casual restaurant chain to pile “indulgent cheese-filled ravioli” on top of lasagna to serve up a 1,170-calorie dish with a whopping two-and-a-half days’ worth of saturated fat (48 grams)… Olive Garden continually finds new ways to make Mediterranean food unhealthy.”

While Darden has reaped valuable PR for its partnership with Feeding America (and deserves credit for this work), a real solution to hunger in its restaurants’ communities must focus on providing full-time work opportunities and increasing wages so that its employees do not need public assistance to make ends meet. The company also should support rather than oppose laws that increase worker wages.

To be worthy of a “Golden Chain” award, Lee and Darden must begin matching the company’s rhetoric with meaningful action. Instead of doling out empty PR, Darden should pay workers a living wage, eliminate the use of routine antibiotics in its meat supply, source more local, regional, organic food, and serve higher welfare animal products. It should also set specific environmental benchmarks for its suppliers and increase plant-based options.

Maybe then an award would be warranted. Call it a “golden opportunity” for Lee and Darden to attract new value-based millennial customers and improve its practices in the name of consumer health, worker rights, a better environment and the welfare of animals.

Kari Hamerschlag is deputy director for food and technology at Friends of the Earth. Hear more about Friends of the Earth’s work to change restaurant food in a recent Rootstock Radio interview.

Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. He has written for Harper’s, the Economist, Mother Jones, Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor. See more of his work at www.christopherdcook.com.

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