WASHINGTON -- In what looks like another public relations thorn in the paw of Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., Consumers United with Employees is claiming the chain not only sells outdated infant formula, but is slow in doling out consumer refunds.
After purchasing 1,088 allegedly outdated infant formula cans in 13 of the 14 states in which Food Lion operates (none in Louisiana), CUE requested a refund on Feb. 14 under the company's Gold Lion Guarantee of customer satisfaction, according to Sean Cunniff, a CUE spokesman.
On April 1, Food Lion issued a letter to CUE -- a coalition whose members include labor and consumer groups -- stating the chain would provide refunds if the cans were returned to the stores where they were bought.
CUE contends six weeks was too long to wait for a refund. However, Chris Ahearn, Food Lion's corporate communications manager, said CUE's claims stem not out of concern for consumers, but from a desire to financially hurt Food Lion.
"We feel this is a union-orchestrated campaign," said Ahearn. "The UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] has gone on record as saying that it will economically harm our organization. And CUE, a surrogate organization of UFCW, has continually attacked Food Lion and Food Lion only.
"What this is all about is that we're a nonunion company," she continued. "And CUE was formed when Food Lion began expanding into areas of the country where unionized supermarket chains dominate the market.
"That's why they don't look at any other chains -- like in Washington, D.C., an area where we're beginning to expand into and that's right in [CUE's] backyard. But they're not looking at Safeway, Giant or Magruder's."
When asked why his organization chose to single out Food Lion, Cunniff said the decision was based on the chain's past problems, which stemmed from the "PrimeTime Live" feature on Food Lion's handling of perishables.
And when asked if CUE was going to check any other chains for outdated products, Cunniff responded, "It's very difficult in terms of resources, although it's certainly a good idea. It is naive to think this is limited to one chain. We certainly hope that by doing this kind of thing, there is an impact on everybody in the retail food industry."
He went on to say that he hopes CUE's actions will serve as a warning to retailers. "If stores aren't careful to adhere to what consumers want, then they're going to face difficulties like these."
But Ahearn and Food Lion doubt if other retailers have anything to worry about where CUE is concerned. "Unfortunately," said Ahearn, "they portray themselves as a consumer organization and they're not. That's not what this is about. If they were concerned about consumers, they'd be worried about infant formula at every store around the country.
"They're not trying to organize the company, they're just trying to keep us out of their back yard."