It’s generally illegal to sell prison-made goods across state lines. But since the 1930s, the law has included an exemption for agriculture.

In 2011, Leprino Foods, the $3 billion company that supplies all the mozzarella to Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s pizza chains, lost its buffalo milk supplier in India.

Water buffalo milk isn’t easy to find in the United States, especially not as much as a company as big as Denver-based Leprino could use. The animals are finicky, sometimes refusing to give milk at the sight of a stranger, and they produce only a fraction of the milk that cows make.

But Leprino was in luck: One of its existing suppliers, which soon became one of the largest buffalo dairies in the United States, agreed to step in, and the milk began to flow. Leprino trademarked the slogan “with a kiss of buffalo milk” for Bacio, its premium mozzarella line marketed to independent pizzerias. Yet something seemed amiss, according to pizza cheese enthusiasts who frequented online forums: Where was Bacio getting the buffalo milk, and how much was it actually using?

The answer to the first question, it turned out, may have been the Colorado prison system, where incarcerated people working for the state’s correctional industries earn an average of $4.50 per day. Leprino was the only buyer of Colorado Correctional Industries’ buffalo milk between 2017 and 2020, purchasing more than 600 tons at an average price of $1.19 per pound, according to public records obtained by The Counter. (The records did not include sales from previous years, and the company did not respond to interview requests.) An independent buffalo dairy told The Counter it had sold small quantities of the same product for more than double the price Leprino paid.

Leprino was able to gain a competitive edge—access to an ingredient that’s difficult to source—by partnering with Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi). Had they known about the partnership, its customers (and their customers, the pizza-eating denizens of the United States) may have chosen to avoid the company’s cheese, whether out of a desire not to support the prison system or a belief that their food dollars should go toward companies whose workers earn living wages. But they probably never found out about the relationship: Prisons don’t generally publish the names of the companies that purchase the food they produce.

The Counter identified over $40 million in transactions between private food companies, prisons, and prison industries since 2017, including sales to major food industry players like Cargill and the Dairy Farmers of America. Across the country, at least 650 correctional institutions have some sort of food processing, landscaping, or farming operation, according to research by sociologist Joshua Sbicca and feminist geographer-political ecologist Carrie Chennault at Colorado State University.

In some states, food produced in prisons makes its way into restaurants and grocery stores through companies like Leprino, though in most places, food produced on prison grounds feeds the prison system and the public sector. Elsewhere, private food companies contract with state correctional industries to hire incarcerated workers, often for meager pay. In some ways, the small world of prison food production is a microcosm of the American food system, which has roots in slave labor and all too often functions as a race to the bottom: Fueled in part by cheap labor and low overhead, the drive toward production and profit leaves behind the people who plant the seeds and butcher the beef.

Read the full article about food made with prison labor by H. Claire Brown at The Counter.