Joe's Foes 

Union-linked nonprofit humiliates local grocer with food-spoilage allegations, and local media drops the ball completely.

It would appear that Farmer Joe's and the local media just got Punk'd.

Last we checked in with Farmer Joe's Marketplace was two months ago. The National Labor Relations Board had thrown out several complaints from the United Food and Commercial Workers union alleging unfair labor practices against the new Fruitvale store, and union organizers ominously told us that this was just the beginning of problems for the mom-and-pop grocer, which operates in two Oakland locations.

That prophecy was realized last week when a group calling itself the California Healthy Communities Network held a press conference outside Alameda County's Department of Environmental Health. Spokesman Phil Tucker announced that the group would file complaints with the agency alleging that Farmer Joe's Fruitvale store had brazenly sold expired food products, and that employees had brushed off customers who attempted to return the spoiled items.

Regardless of whether the claim is true, the group's faxed press release should have raised immediate red flags: Who, exactly, was this group? And why would it single out Farmer Joe's? Apparently, neither KTVU nor the Oakland Tribune, both of which jumped on the story, asked themselves these most basic questions. The Trib identified California Healthy Communities Network as "a Martinez-based public health group" while KTVU called it "one health watchdog group," descriptions that gave the nonprofit a semblance of nonpartisanship and independence.

The group's own Web page yields evidence to the contrary: In fact, the California Healthy Communities Network was cofounded by the same union that's fighting Farmer Joe's, along with East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a pro-labor organization, and others. Indeed, project director Tucker previously served as spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1179.

The news outlets also failed to figure out that the food sting was the first of its kind for a group that previously worked only on labor and land issues. KTVU, meanwhile, interviewed Daniel Rush, who assisted with the sting operation. The report identifies him only as a "private investigator." While Rush is indeed a licensed private eye, the report certainly dealt the former political director of UFCW Local 120 an unearned vibe of independence.

The hive mind wasn't so complacent. Within minutes, commenters on the Trib's Web site and a pro-Farmer Joe's blog had labeled the press conference a union smear campaign. Farmer Joe's co-owner Diana Tam certainly thought so. Yet union officials insist they had no ties to the sting operation. And despite the group's obvious conflicts of interest, the Healthy Communities Network claims its actions were strictly complaint-driven, and on the behalf of consumers. The union organizers who showed up to observe the press conference would likely agree.

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