Russell Stover Kansas Facilities Cut Sanitation to Save Money, Leading to Unclean Production Lines

Allergens like tree nuts were not properly cleaned from the lines, former and current Kansas plant workers told me

Candy maker Russell Stover cut sanitation teams in at least two of its Kansas facilities—Iola and Abilene—part of a series of cost-saving measures that also included turning to inmates at a nearby women's prison to make up a labor shortfall. 

The effect on production line cleanliness was immediate, and noticeable.

"It was really bad," Sid, a former security guard at the Abilene facility who did not want their real name used for fear of retribution, told me. "On my nightly rounds I would walk through around an inch of standing water by our dish-room. The floors in the food production areas were constantly dirty."

Russell Stover did not reply to a request for comment on this story.

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Cost cutting 

Russell Stover's sanitation teams cuts came in 2020, multiple sources who both work for and used to work for the company told me. 

Sanitation crew members at the Iola and Abilene facilities were cut from their regular positions and instructed to join production, where they were expected to meet quotas while also ensuring the sanity and cleanliness of the facility.

Alan Beard, a former maintenance manager at the Iola plant, told me that while the sanitation team's transition to production was a learning curve—they were expected to take on the cleaning as well—he didn't see many issues in practice other than cleaning taking a long time. 

"I think at first it was a little tough because you've got people that have never been in that role," Beard said. 

Everyone else I spoke to, none of whom could give their real names for fear of retribution or violating NDAs, had a different story. 


Allergen safety

According to one current staffer, conditions in the Kansas facilities were not great even before the sanitation crew was let go. Seeking cuts to the expense of running the facilities, however, plant management didn't care.

The sanitation cuts led to allergens like tree nuts and peanuts not being properly cleaned from the lines before resuming non-allergen production and general filth and grime—caked-on chocolate built up on molds and shells.

Today, cleanliness is better, but still lacking. The primary focus is still on production, though the staff will do a big clean on occasion if an important guest is coming to tour the plant, a former Iola worker told me. 

"Corporate Operations did not want to spend the needed time and money for necessary cleanings," the worker said.

Russell Stover and prison labor

Special treatment

Russell Stover came under fire earlier this week after I published an article on the company's use of prison labor to make up for labor shortfalls in Iola. The plant buses in 150 women from Topeka Correctional Facility to work production; the Abilene facility also participates in the program. 

The candy maker is just the latest participant in a work release program that provides cut rate workers to state companies, as Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda told inmates in an email forwarded to me by a family member.

"We have recently expanded to 42 the number of companies that provide opportunities for jobs for our residents," Zmuda wrote. "The newest company is Russell Stover Chocolates."

According to an inmate who is part of the work release program but not at Russell Stover, the candy maker's inmate workers are given special treatment. 

"I work for an industry job and we don't get that special treatment," the inmate said in an email to the Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform. "What makes them better [than] anybody else here?"

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