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Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

a

Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



PMA's EAT BRIGHTER Campaign Trumpets Success But The Data Tells Us Nothing About Any Consumption Boost

We’ve written before about the “Eat Brighter” program in pieces such as these:

As PMA Promotes Eat Brighter, Questions Arise About Brand Efficacy And Measurements Of Success Or Failure

IMAGINE-NATION: Will The First Lady’s Sesame Street Campaign Reduce Produce Consumption?

When Elmo Is Crying – Will The Sesame Street Brand Be Used To Market Sub-standard Product? Is The Legal Minimum An Acceptable Food Safety Standard When Promoting To Children?

Now that the Muppets are back on TV, with some controversy as it is an “adult” show, John Pandol, frequent contributor to Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS asks, Are the Muppets “Too Adult” to promote fruits and veggies to little kids?

I was never much of a Sesame Street watcher and neither were my kids.  I do have fond memories of the Muppet Show of 35 years ago.  The division of Disney, which manages the Muppets, has been very aggressive recently in re-launching the Muppets to a new  generation.  This includes making the characters available for free to fruit and vegetable companies to promote trial and consumption among children. A noble cause.

A media activist watchdog group called One Million Moms is warning parents not to let their kids watch the Muppet Show, as the humor is not suitable for the little ones. I have not seen the show, so I must remain silent regarding its age-appropriateness. Having said that, it would not be the first time a too-scary character from a movie ends up in a kids fast food happy meal or a 'sexy beyond their years' Halloween costume.

OK, produce people, what say you?  Are the Sesame Street characters no longer appropriate for little kids? Is Sesame Street promoting produce or is produce promoting Sesame Street?

John is a little inaccurate here, as there has been a split in ownership of Jim Henson’s creations. The characters used in the “Eat Brighter” program are licensed by Sesame Workshop. The television show features the Muppets, which are owned by Disney.

But John does point to one of the dangers of licensing. The licensor is at risk: Suppose, G-d forbid, there is a food safety outbreak and a child were to get ill or even die as a result of eating some Elmo-logoed product. And the licensee is dependent on the licensor protecting the integrity and reputation of the mark.

Fortunately Sesame Workshop is quite vigilant about that, and so that is not a problem – at least so far.

The bigger problem is just whether or not the program boosts consumption. On that the evidence is weak.

PMA published a press release titled, Quarter 2 -- 5% Sales Increase Reported by Long-tern Eat Brighter! Participants:

Newark, Del. — Quarterly research surveys administered by Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Research Center show positive results for Eat Brighter! sales in Q2, including a 3 percent average increase in sales year-over-year as reported by participants.

Some participants reported increases as high as 11 percent. Eat Brighter!, the initiative that grants produce industry members access to Sesame Street character images royalty-free in their go-to-market strategies, has been extended through 2018, largely due to the success created by the 110 participants.

Since the launch of the program, the PMA Research Center has conducted 3 quarterly surveys; a compilation of results include the following additional insights: 

• Of the suppliers in market, 75% have reported an increase in year-over-year sales. 

• Of the suppliers who have been in market for three quarters, the average increase is 5.3 percent. 

First Lady Michelle Obama commented on the data, “With produce sales rising three percent on average for participating companies -- and with some reporting increases as high as 11 percent  it's very clear that the Eat Brighter! campaign is working brilliantly. I am so thrilled to see Sesame Street and produce suppliers and retailers coming together to get our kids excited about healthy eating, and I look forward to seeing more companies come on board to grow the momentum. Thanks, Elmo and Big Bird!”

PMA President Cathy Burns commented in a letter to members, “This is an encouraging sign, and we’re thrilled that participants are able to take the Eat Brighter! assets, available through an unprecedented program agreement with Sesame Workshop, and turn it into results like these. Now that the program has been extended through 2018, we look forward to seeing positive growth in this trend as more kids and families experience Eat Brighter! in stores.”

The movement’s success also led to the expansion of the program in Mexico, allowing produce marketers, retailers, school foodservice and promotional organizations who sell product there to participate. The announcement was made at the PMA Fresh Connections: Mexico Conference and Expo in May.

In regards to the program overall, Chris Veillon, Director of Marketing for NatureFresh™ Farms, said, “The Eat Brighter! program has been a great promotional vehicle for us since signing on in early 2015. We saw an opportunity to broaden our reach with branded packaging that would have an immediate impact at store level. We have watched customers with kids gravitate to the Sesame Street packaging and put back non-branded packaging they had in their carts. The kids are definitely the decision-makers!”

Several Eat Brighter!™ champions, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Sesame Street’s Big Bird and NBC Parks and Recreation comedian and FunnyOrDie.com regular Billy Eichner of Billy on the Street, were recognized with an Emmy nomination for their work on the Eat Brighter! comedic video launched in February. From the time the Emmy nomination was announced, the video garnered tens of thousands of additional views.

“Healthier options are now trending in the United States,” said Lawrence A. Soler, PHA CEO. “PHA partners like PMA and Sesame Workshop are leading the way by making fruits and vegetables more fun for kids, and increasing consumer demand for these healthier options.”

*******

It is, of course, useful that individual shippers participating in the program are seeing sales increases, but that has very little to do with total consumption. In fact, the study doesn’t have a control group, so it is not even clear that firms using Eat Brighter are growing faster than firms without.

But even if sales are increasing, that could be accounted for by retailers who support the program, shifting purchases to suppliers who participate, but leaving net sales and consumption both flat.

It will be interesting to see if some bright grad student picks up on the program to study its impact on grower returns. If a shipper has a proprietary brand – say Driscoll’s – and consumers prefer that brand, then retailers have to pay up to get the product; in fact, consumers have to pay up to get the product.

But if the same shippers abandon their proprietary brands and use the Sesame Street characters as their brand, then retailers can pound them on price because there can be several companies that have the same branding to offer.

Back years ago, the Pundit was a big exporter of Florida grapefruit, having many customers on, for example, the Rungis market in Paris. We had to create several different brands as each wholesaler on the market wanted to promote his own exclusive brand. It reduced price competition and allowed each wholesaler to get a better return.

It will be interesting to see the research results:

1) Do the Sesame Street characters boost sales? We have done a lot of writing on cartoon characters and haven’t found much evidence.

2) Do they boost consumption? This is not exactly the same as sales. If children nag their parents, they might buy product with characters that children want — but will the children eat the product?

3) Does the program lead to higher returns to growers?

The program has been extended through 2018, so let’s get some of the academics focused on answering these questions so we can know what kind of marketing the industry should pursue.




UK Apple Industry Under The Gun For Exposé On Mistreatment Of Migrant Farm Workers
But Is The Attack Accurate? Is it Representative?
Aldi Quits Buying, But Will That Help The Workers?

After the Los Angeles Times did its big report on the treatment of farm labor in Mexico, we ran several pieces, including these:

DAMAGING LOS ANGELES TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT MEXICAN LABOR, Though Incomplete And Unbalanced, Puts Retailers And Receivers On Notice…

IS THE PUNDIT SCROOGE? IS FAIR TRADE AN ANSWER? The LA Times And Coalition Of Immokalee Workers Tell Us How To Solve Mexico’s Labor Problems.

Well now, the topic is hot in the UK as well, and PRODUCE BUSINESS UK has provided much context. Here you can see the television documentary that prompted the controversy:

 

Supermarkets launch investigations over migrant exploitation

They pack 1 in 4 apples you buy in Britain's top supermarkets. But who are the people doing the work? Channel 4 News has been undercover at Britain's largest growing, packing and storage operation.

And what we discovered was nothing short of shocking.

At Nickle Farm in Kent, we found a small army of largely Romanian workers - lured here by a network of Romanian employment agencies who pass them on to one here in Britain called Pro-force.

Tonight Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer have all told Channel 4 News they have launched investigations. And one supermarket, Aldi, has suspended its orders. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has also launched an investigation into our findings.

Our undercover reporter experienced first hand the highly-pressured environment, with managers breathing down workers' necks to meet strict targets. And with many of them living in appalling conditions that they say are supplied by the agency they work for — and that some say aren't fit for animals.

The workers are here legally but new research shows that Britain has the lowest number of labour inspectors among similar EU countries and investigations are declining as budgets are cut.

The workers are told their accommodation will be deluxe, yet tonight's report will show images at one site used by Pro-Force of feces-encrusted toilets; soiled, sodden carpets; mold-infested walls and showers not fit for human use.

One couple tells the programme when they entered their caravan it smelled like a corpse.

'Like a ghetto'

"The first evening when I went in there you couldn't breathe, the smell was unbearable, you could have fainted. Like a ghetto. Like walking into a ghetto. They are not fit for humans."

Yet when they complained, they were told to leave if they weren't happy.

The worker said: "She said that other caravans were worse than the ones we lived in. She told us that ours was one of the best ones."

Up to 6 workers are squeezed into each caravan and made to pay £35 each a week in rent, giving the agency Pro Force additional revenue of as much as £20,000 a week. Pro Force denies this, saying that figure doesn't take into account the costs incurred in providing the accommodation.

On top of that, one Pro-Force manager filmed undercover tells the workers they must pay for gas and electricity, although Pro-Force told us it provides £5 of electricity for free each week.

And in addition, workers have to pay £5 a day for the shuttle bus that takes them to and from the field and pack house — again more potential income for Pro-Force.

Aggressive bosses

Pro-Force supplies workers to the packing plant at Nickle Farm, which is run by FW Mansfield. In the pack house, we exposé aggressive bosses shouting at staff to work ever-harder. On one occasion, workers ask for a short break to have water.

We witness the boss threatening to throw them all out and replace them with other workers. "If you don't want to work I'm going to send this whole team home ok... and I'm going to get another people in."

One worker pipes up. "It's not about that people don't want to work. We just want to get some water, to breathe..."

Another worker tells us he feels they treated "like objects." They have to pack five bags of apples a minute, with bosses always pressing them to work faster. If the packers fail to meet their targets, the worker tells us they are disciplined, or simply left off the shift for the next day.

"They kick them off," the worker says.

'Push the guys'

One boss tells our undercover reporter: "You must understand how important it is to push the guys. There are only five people to manage but sometimes it's harder to manage five people than 30 people. Because you have to pressure."

In one incident, a manager reveals: "I had such a problem today. Sixteen people called me yesterday saying that they're sick because of this pack house." We're later told by one of the workers the air conditioning unit had been leaking fumes but the bosses had not allowed the workers to leave until the end of their shift.

"Yes it's like someone is pushing your head," the worker tells us. "They leave us...to stay there until they finish the order. The next day something like 15 or 16 people don't come to work because they feel sick."

Mansfield and Pro-Force told us that they did not receive any complaints about this incident. Pro-Force says only two people left their shift early and say the fumes were harmless condensation.

And all this under the eyes of Britain's biggest supermarkets, who all use the farm in Kent to source their fruit. We're told that when the supermarkets come to do their audits, the work lines are deliberately slowed down and the place is cleaned up, something both firms deny.

Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer have all launched investigations. And one supermarket Aldi — has suspended its orders.

Brits 'unprepared' to work

One worker close to tears admits. "I didn't have the courage to tell my family back home about the conditions and what is happening here."

Some can't take it and leave. Yet 170,000 Romanians have come here this year alone looking to better their lives. And more will follow.

Perhaps what's most startling about our footage is the fact that the majority of workers are from Eastern Europe — despite the fact these farms are in Kent — the so-called Garden of England — and open to British workers in exactly the same way. British workers who often criticise migrants for coming to the UK and taking British jobs.

Yet all the Romanian workers we spoke to said that if British workers do sign up, they leave within days, unprepared to work under the types of conditions that they are forced to tolerate.

All of which leaves migrant workers potentially more open to exploitation.

Channel 4 News has learned that The Gangmasters Licensing Authority — which provides licenses to the employment agencies — is conducting an investigation into the agencies that supply Mansfields.

Neither the GLA, nor the supermarkets or the body — the British Retail Consortium — that represents them would agree to come on our programme this evening.

Then came a response, which was unveiled on PRODUCE BUSINESS UK: Pro-Force responds to Channel 4 News Allegations:

Following  this opinion piece on Produce Business UK this morning, Pro-Force contacted us with a statement in reply to the Channel 4 News item on packhouse workers’ conditions broadcast on October 19.

Matt Jarrett, managing director of Pro-Force, said: “Pro-Force operates in a highly regulated sector, and is under constant scrutiny by third party auditors, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health & Safety Executive, HMRC and SEDEX, the “ethical watchdog” for the supermarkets. We are monitored continually, and have never failed any of the numerous unannounced audits carried out, demonstrating our best practice in all aspects of our business.

“We are therefore very disappointed that Channel 4 News has broadcast numerous and wide-ranging allegations of serious wrongdoing, despite Pro-Force having given them extensive evidence that its allegations were unfounded and its sources of information lacked credibility.

“When we were contacted by Channel 4 News with its claims, we informed them that the living conditions they described — we were not shown footage — bore no relation to the standards of the accommodation we supply, which is audited frequently by regulators as well as weekly by our welfare officers.

“Now we have seen the footage Channel 4 News has deployed to make its allegations, Pro-Force can confirm it is in fact a compilation of images of:

· a toilet and damaged wall from an old, disused porta-cabin that had been broken into;

· a surplus, disconnected sink in a caravan that was due for removal and which until recently only had a hairline fracture;

· and close up views of a couple of damp patches  common when vents are closed – in an otherwise clean and tidy caravan.

These must have been edited together to create the impression Channel 4 News clearly wanted to portray. It is not footage of a worker’s caravan, contrary to the assertions made by Channel 4 News.

“A further example of misrepresentation is the claim of workers suffering sickness from a “leaking” air conditioning unit. We gave Channel 4 News unambiguous evidence from the air conditioning engineer (who is not employed by Pro-Force or its client) that the fluid used in the system is non-toxic, that none escaped and that the mist was condensing air. Channel 4 News ignored this conclusive evidence that there could be no sickness from fumes.

“We adhere to all the legal standards governing our industry. However, Pro-Force strives to go beyond these, always looking for improvement in all areas. We have a number of ways for workers to report, anonymously, any problems with their working conditions or living arrangements. Our workers are our greatest asset, and we’re committed to ensuring they have a rewarding experience working with us.

“Despite this, we accept there are some areas we want to look into further — such as how staff are communicated with, how clearly they understand that, for example, overtime is optional.  Should this uncover any area for improvement, we will rectify problems and review processes as necessary, in our ongoing efforts to be the leading labour provider in our field.

“Channel 4 News has not shown the typical experiences of our workers, 70% of whom are returnees, coming back to us year after year. That is a clear testament to our dedication to high welfare standards.”

Tommy Leighton [editor of PRODUCE BUSINESS UK] comments:“As I wrote in the original opinion piece, 'There is always an agenda at play when a programme is looking for news'. It is not any more useful or right for me to judge the standard of the journalism than the validity of the journalist’s claims at this stage, but if what Pro-Force has counterclaimed is true, then it is not just the industry that is left with a case to answer.”

Tommy Leighton’s piece, Industry should take collective perspective on C4 News allegations, has led to healthy discussion:

I’m not going to pass premature judgement on what millions of viewers of Channel 4 News watched last night – as the programme said, customers Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose are investigating allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers at FW Mansfield’s Nickle Farm, and Aldi has already reportedly suspended orders from the UK’s largest fruit grower. 

Click here to watch the report and read the article that was written around the item on the C4 News website.

There is always an agenda at play when a programme is looking for news and the migrant worker story is guaranteed to resonate at this juncture. But whatever your view on undercover reporting, there was some pretty damning stuff aired. The emotive language is nothing new, but some of the images of the living accommodation were horrific.

If any of it is true, then there are a questions to answer for both Pro-Force, the recruitment agency that provides the workers for Nickle Farm and the temporary homes for many of those workers, and Mansfield’s. 

If the living conditions are the direct responsibility of Pro-Force, worker welfare is also the responsibility of Mansfield’s and it must be said, its customers, who demand ultra-high service levels at low prices.

It’s interesting to note that the larger supermarkets, who rely on Mansfield’s for a large volume of English apples they perhaps couldn’t get elsewhere, are merely investigating at this stage, while Aldi, which won’t be buying anything like that volume, has apparently cut ties with immediate effect. 

But what should buyers be asking themselves when something like this happens?

The potential damage to the reputation of your brand by association with this story is important, of course, as is in some cases the potential loss of value of your shares to your shareholders. Perhaps that is why Aldi has allegedly suspended orders.

Having to find somewhere else from which to source all that fruit to fill your shelves at a peak time for English apple sales is a huge problem (probably impossible as Mansfield’s is such a huge player) and English top-fruit is a major driver at this time of year. Not having that fruit would risk losing shoppers in the run-up to Christmas. Maybe this is the reason why the other trio are investigating rather than pulling out straight away. 

It just may be because they see the bigger picture though. By suspending its orders – if indeed that happens to be true – it could be argued that Aldi would not be helping matters all that much. There was no implied food-safety issue; in fact the programme more than once said how efficiently the packhouse was running due to the stringent regime of the packhouse managers.

The real issue is worker welfare – and is it really helping those workers if you simply cut ties? The better course of action would be to support Nickle Farm through the process of clearing up whatever mess it might be in – ensuring that every single worker on the farm is being treated fairly and putting the checks and measures in place to further ensure that this continues in the long term. I don't know what Waitrose, M&S or Sainsbury’s are actually doing to investigate, but I’d imagine there is some desire to correct, rather than condemn.

It is easy to take the moral high ground and remove yourself from responsibility in situations like this. But buyers could do worse than look at what causes companies to tread the boundaries of fair play in the first place. Migrant workers are being paid the minimum wage to work long hours because the supermarket chains require efficiency levels that are by their nature extremely hard to attain for a produce company.

Could they pay a little more per kilo on the condition that this type of story never happens again? Too many English apples are sold on promotion anyway — the consumer is prepared to pay a fair price for home-grown fruit – and it wouldn’t take a wild flight of fancy for a retailer (or all retailers for that matter) to pay 5p or 10p extra a kilo and pass that on to customers by removing some of the price promotion, in order to oblige growers and gangmasters to invest more further down the line.

The British Retail Consortium refused to come on the programme to represent its members’ views, because, it said, the Gangmaster Licensing Authority is involved in a wider investigation of the Romanian agencies that provide the workers to Pro-Force initially. Neither Pro-Force or Mansfield’s were represented directly on the show either.

So there were as many questions as answers and as I say, this is not a time to leap to conclusions, but clearly this is not a happy hour for the fruit industry. There was no suggestion that the quality of the product was being jeopardised, but shoppers care about the treatment of the workforce who pick and pack their fruit, and some of the images were there to shock — and did.

On the other side of the coin, the alleged over-pressurisation of workers in the packhouse looked bad in the context of the piece, but realistically, it wasn’t all that terrible. Workers in all sorts of industries are expected to work fast and hard throughout their shifts, and most of us will have experienced unpleasant management at some point in our lives – that’s not a crime.

Claims that Nickle Farm slows down its packing lines and cleans up more vigilantly when its customers come to audit sound a little unlikely, but again, let’s wait and see what the investigations decide.

I’d be surprised though if anyone who doesn’t work in the food industry watched the programme and was not at least a little disturbed. There were whispers around that this was coming. And other national news organisations have been sniffing around the produce industry as a fairly obvious target for news surrounding treatment of migrant workers.

All this as the nation wrings its hands over immigration and the focus remains on the scurrilous gangs overseas that are sending people into the UK with no due care for their wellbeing.

Obviously, the response is already being formulated. Unfortunately, as bad news goes, this is not an isolated case. It is only three months since Andrew Stocker was jailed for manslaughter after two workers died at the Hampshire fruit farm he managed, and this is another blow for the top-fruit sector.

The industry can look at the fact that margins are tight, expectations are high and the consequences for failure to hit performance targets are dire. I think the vast majority of us would agree, though, that whatever the pressures on a business and however attractive the options to cut corners, there will never be an acceptable excuse for mistreating fellow human beings.

It’s the National Fruit Show this week, and this will obviously be the story on everyone’s lips. But in the interest of the domestic fruit industry, it would be far better if people at the production end too were to accept that when something like this surfaces, the whole industry has an issue to deal with, rather than go with the natural instinct, which is to distance oneself from what the nation has seen and insist that it couldn’t happen on your watch.

Paul Mansfield is one of the most successful British fruit growers in history, but it has allegedly happened on his.

*******

All these pieces raise many questions. Is this true? If it is true, to what extend is it representative? And then, finally, how do we make things better?

This particular report seems very problematic. The reporters allow a person whose credibility has not been vetted to show their home movie on TV. How do the reporters know that is accurate?

Beyond that, the facts of the matter don’t really jibe with the implication the reporters are making. It is not contested that the workers can leave any time they want. So that implies that the situation is better than any alternative they have.

Aldi so quickly disassociating itself seems questionable as well. We once wrote a piece about child labor in a blueberry farm in Michigan. The piece was titled When Child Labor Laws Don’t Necessarily Help Children. Everyone was quick to denounce what was really just parents keeping their children with them, but nobody was coming up with money to send these kids to summer camp or a school.

Yes, the pictures of dirty sinks and so forth are arresting, but we actually don’t know if they are accurate representations of this site much less that they accurately represent the industry.

As for the rest, being pushed to work hard, etc. – it is not at all clear that this is abusive or even a problem.

After all, when the workers said they wanted water, the big tough boss gave them a ten minute break.

Are these prize seeking journalists willing to cut the cloth to the shape they want to have? We don’t know. But one has to be careful, if we price labor in the UK out of range, then the apples will all be imported from places with worse labor conditions – who benefits then?




Olympic Meal Planner To Discuss Menu Development For Athletes At IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum At The New York Produce Show And Conference: Can The Industry Leverage Elite Athletes And Their Belief In Eating Fresh To Build Demand?

Some customers are low volume but high prestige, and so feeding America’s elite Olympic athletes is a big win for individual shippers and the produce industry as a whole.

When we had the opportunity to bring a key player in making this happen to the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum, co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a sneak preview about what she will discuss as part of the panel, titled Identifying And Ideating The Next Big Thing On The Menu:

Terri Moreman, FMP
Associate Director Food and Nutrition Services
United States Olympic Committee (USOC),
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Q: To start, your job sounds like an Olympic feat. You support a global staff serving an estimated 800,000 meals combined at Olympic Training Centers in the U.S. In addition, you’re the liaison to the USOC on athlete meals and special event functions, including the Olympic Games and Pan American Games.

We’re fascinated to learn more about the food and nutrition team behind Team USA, and especially how fresh produce fits within the athletes’ menus and Olympic training programs. You’re now working on your 14th Olympic Games so we would like to know about some of the latest developments in your preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Do fresh fruits and vegetables play a role in the athletes winning strategies?

A: I’m just coming back from Rio. Let me give you a little bit of a snapshot of what the organization is doing in Rio to support athletes on the ground.  USOC will have three big, high performance training centers, where Team USA will be doing pre-competition training. 

They’ll be coming in and out of the village while they’re training in these particular locations, managed by the U.S. Olympic committee, and not official IOC venues. What we do is make sure the athletes are focusing on their performance. We remove every obstacle out of their way.

They don’t have to think about food. They know we are taking care of it. They don’t have to worry about whether the bus is going to get me to where I need to be. They’ll know this training venue is going to be sanitized and clean, and will be a safe environment. 

We’re actually the team behind the team, making sure when they arrive, they’re just focusing on getting to the podium, and on their training and competition. 

Q: What happens behind the scenes on the menu front, and more specifically in securing and incorporating produce ingredients?

A: As you know, I’ve done this a few times around. Our trip to Rio was very successful. We had 14 different meetings, every single one outstanding. We met with many vendors wanting to do business with us. My main reason for going was to shore up the remaining food vendors from produce to protein. I told the produce vendor, you’re the answer to my prayers. He was educated at Stanford University, then he lived in Florida, and now he and his family have an international produce business. So he’s going to be the primary vendor providing produce to the U.S. team. 

At the same time, I work with the general contractor to get the equipment installed, to make sure it is set up properly in this location, has the right power and receptacles, and the place is fully operational.

Q: Is it OK for us to mention the name of the international produce vendor?

A: I would prefer you didn’t at this time as we haven’t signed any agreements yet. We want to get everything in place first before we make an official announcement of who the players are.  I could certainly share who our sponsors are on the ground, but as far as it relates to independent vendors, I would rather not mention them until they’re official partners.

Q: To clarify, it’s just one main produce vendor you’ll be working with, or do you pull from a variety of produce suppliers? How does the sourcing process work exactly?

A: There are a lot of big box stores around… what you’d think of as a Costco or Sam’s Club. They have an abundance of produce there. There are smaller entities that provide produce all throughout Rio, but this international vendor can handle all the fruits and vegetables I need for all the locations.  Do I have secondary backup folks? Absolutely. But they’re on a much smaller scale.

Q: How important is fresh produce in menu development? Could you give our readers an idea of the scope? For instance, do you have any statistics on the quantities of produce items purchased in different venues?

A: I just flew 12,000 miles to make sure I had the right produce vendor able to do business with us. It’s extremely important.  The fruits and vegetables have anti-inflammatory properties, and they’re vital to the athletes’ performance. When the athletes come into the dining facility, one of the first stops is at the salad bar, and they continue to move down that line where they have a wide choice of fresh vegetable varieties, innovative pre-made salads, nutritious soups, and healthy entrees on the grill, where you can get seasonal grilled vegetables.

You can go to the fusion station, where the athletes can add an animal protein to their particular entrée today or ask to make the entrée with just produce.  Combined at all training centers, we purchase about $300,000 in fresh produce a year for around 800,000 meals.  That roughly equates to 240,000 pounds of product to support the U.S. team at training centers in the U.S. [The USOC has established three Olympic Training Centers along with 17 Olympic Training Sites located in 15 states throughout the U.S.]

I always think of an athlete as a high performing machine. Like a Rolls Royce, you wouldn’t fill it with low octane fuel; you’d always want to make sure you use high octane fuel. We work hard to select the best fruits and vegetables that are available in the marketplace.

Q: Could you describe the logistical process of sourcing those items, the complexities based on the various locations, issues with seasonality, prices, availability, etc. What variables come into play?

A: We know so many factors impact our costs as operators. Fluctuating costs are critical in menu planning. Fortunately, I’m not selling anything; I’m providing a service to our athletes, so I have to continue to watch and source seasonally and adjust menus based on what’s in season and what’s available to us.

In Colorado, we have a much shorter growing season, but our California location has significantly more opportunity. As much as we think about availability and carbon footprint, if we have to go beyond Colorado or California to source a product, we try to make sure it’s still from North America, so that’s what we use as our guidelines in selecting product.

Q: What about on the international front?

A: Globally, I network with so many groups. For instance, I’m pretty active in the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA).  When I work overseas, these organizations are so well connected to the industry many times they give me leads for vendors out of the country. I work with these industry leaders of all these major brands, and they really go out of their way to help us and the U.S. team. We have strong relationships.

They don’t teach the students today coming out of higher education how important relationships are. But it’s absolutely critical we build these relationships in this business to create the reputation and environment we want everybody to participate in. 

With other corporate sponsors like Hilton properties, I work with their executive chefs or their food and beverage people in various countries and they’ve done all their research and traceability on products, and they’ll give me leads on suppliers. It’s a great starting point, and I’ve built on that information from a number of different relationships I’ve established, which is important.

Q: Do you have any stories to exemplify that importance of relationship building?

A: I have a cute story. I had just boarded the plane headed to Beijing for the 2008 games, got to my seat and was about to turn off my cell phone for takeoff, when my phone rang. “Is this Terri Moreman from the USOC? I’m with the USDA, and I just talked to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. I’m trying to get California strawberries into Beijing, and the Embassy USDA office told me to call you; that you would know how to get them into the country.”

We had a short conversation, and I gave him my number of where to reach me when I arrived in Beijing. Five days later, I had a pallet of the biggest California strawberries you’ve ever seen sitting at the front door entrance of the Olympics dining room in Beijing. Everybody was asking, where did these come from and I said, from the California Strawberry Commission, working with the USDA. You just never know when you’re going to take a phone call and what is going to transpire.  That’s what’s so exciting about my job.

Q: How has integration of fresh produce in the U.S. team’s diets evolved?

A: Athletes’ tastes have changed over the years.  Now U.S. athletes are used to traveling the world. Most people think the athletes travel to a U.S. training center and that’s all they do. They actually participate in many international competitions. They’re much more knowledgeable and interested in global cuisines and food trends than they were 25 years ago. When they come back from an international trip, they’re always willing to share information, a new fruit, something exotic they may have seen. 

In the back of their minds, they’ve always known to eat their fruits and vegetables, but now they have a greater and better understanding of nutrition research. They’re much more aware of the value of fruits and vegetables and how it translates into good performance and overall health for them.

The majority of comment cards we get are all about that salad bar, and always wanting more fresh produce options. When produce is out of season, it makes it a little more difficult to be a good steward of the money. We want to make sure that we’re introducing them to products and varieties that are seasonal.

We go to great pains to be able to educate our athletes.  We actually have a graduate student whose biggest job is to educate the athletes on ingredients, from table tags to messaging boards with nutritional information and health benefits, featuring local when we can get it, but produce in general, and how it can impact their performance.

Q: When developing menus, do you have health and nutrition requirements/restrictions you must follow to accommodate different athletes’ needs? Are there rules and regulations involving calorie counts, fat, sugar content, etc.?

A: We have a set of nutrition and eating guidelines established by our sport dieticians and nutrition experts and senior staff. All of us are involved in this process to make sure we deliver a wide variety menu base.  We work with the USDA dietary guidelines, but complementing all of that, obviously when you’re dealing with athletes, they’re different than the normal population.

We use sports nutrition guidelines to give us the information we need.  As a chef is sourcing beans, it could be a can of beans, although ideally we look for fresh first; we want beans, water and salt and no other ingredients.  If we can’t pronounce it, we’re not serving it. It’s that simple.

Q: Actually, that doesn’t sound so simple…

A: You’re right. That’s a tough place to be in the quick service business today, having manufacturers keep up with the demand we have for cleaner products, whether fresh produce or canned items, whatever the case may be. We educate the athletes on the calories, the carbs and the proteins to help them make better choices. Each athlete consumes the same high quality food; the difference is in the volume you consume, whereas a weight-lifter will consume more calories than a gymnast. If someone has an allergy, we customize the menu with the sports dietician. 

Q: Could you elaborate on your system for differentiating dietary recommendations based on the type of athlete or their training rigors or weight management issues?

A: We educate athletes on what a plate should look like based on training volume and intensity through their training/competition plan. It varies based on easy training/weight management days, to moderate training workout days to build endurance or strength, to high impact, hard days requiring extra fuel, or if Johnny needs to lose a couple of pounds.

The Athlete’s Plates are a collaboration between the USOC Sport Dietitians and the UCCS Sport Nutrition Graduate Program. No one person gets there alone; there are multiple moving parts. 

Q: Do you have ways to measure the results of your menu dietary plans?

A: We just completed an athlete validation study in cooperation with UCCS to help us identify any imbalances in our menu options, and to measure proteins, fats and calories, and where we need to adjust things, and where we see athletes gravitating.  And that all ties into their counseling with sports dieticians as well. If a particular athlete is having a problem, it’s not just one person talking to that athlete. We’re a national team; it’s the psychologist, physiologist, dietician… so it’s a group approach to helping Johnny get to the next level. The individual counseling goes through the sports performance area, which is separate from my area.  It’s an amazing process. We’re the only organization in the world that does this.

Athletes pretty much eat to win.

Q: That’s a great line.  Do you have any evidence or vignettes from athletes to support that premise?

A: We do a lot of veggie and fruit recovery smoothies. The athletes have 30 minutes to 60 minutes from the time they get out of training to come and select the right choices, and to get the right carbohydrates and proteins in them, so recovery smoothies are huge. 

I have a graduate student at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS), working on a green smoothie recipe development project, and its effect on the body with the iron from the green vegetables and the other nutritional values.

Q: This is part of a research program connected with the USOC? How is it funded, through grants?

A: Yes. We have ongoing projects and are researching different things. We’re actually looking at that right now. A student at UCCS’s nutrition research program has reached out to me about doing more studies like this.

It’s all coming from the University, from grants that we’re benefiting from by learning and getting access to results. And those findings are always shared with our sports dieticians. Our sports dieticians actually make the call on the particular smoothies and the ingredients that are part of this whole wave of health drinks. For instance, sometimes athletes are faced with iron deficiencies and instead of giving them a pill, we’re trying to create real foods that would also help spring board to a stronger immune system. 

We make a beet juice beverage. We named it back in London — Beet It.  It includes beet juice, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger, and fresh orange juice. You can see how these particular produce ingredients, which have anti-inflammatory properties, have had a huge impact on athletes’ recovery.

The athlete is not that different from you and me. We actually suggest athletes do a fly by and check out everything before making their food choice. They do the same thing as you or I; they eat with their eyes. They’re up for bright colorful fruits and vegetables. You’re talking about an astute, educated, elite athlete who understands how important those minerals and nutrients are in fresh produce. 

Q: Could you walk us through the process of developing menus?

A: Basically, our executive chef is the primary person for menu development. She’s our lead collaborator with our sports dietitian, nutrition specialist, or research assistant, and their sous chefs decide where we’re going with our next cycle menu. It’s the same old school of thought; we look at color, texture, taste, knowing our athletes are educated, they’re looking for the next wow, an opportunity to see something new and different and exciting.

So we have ongoing research, pulling from magazines, face-to-face conversations with athletes, talking to sports dietitians… it’s a whole team approach. You can be rest assured, we’re the team behind the team because everything we do is collaborative. 

Q: How do corporate sponsors influence menus? For instance, you co-authored the first Olympic Training Table cookbook with Kraft/General Foods. 

A: We work with global corporate sponsors and like-minded products. We have a lot of wonderful sponsors and products with important nutrients for the athlete’s diet. We incorporate them into the menu and work around them. We tap into the supply chain of various sponsors as well, which is very beneficial for us, especially with traceability of the product.

I don’t have to be concerned where this particular ingredient is coming from when our sponsors have done all that legwork. If that ingredient is associated with that brand, then I feel safe offering it to the athlete because of the company’s due diligence in traceability.

Recently, we collaborated with Smucker’s to create recipe cards. We do hands-on training sessions with athletes and our culinary teams. We put together mystery baskets with a variety of ingredients, and athletes in teams get x amount of time to come up with a recipe and then present it, and it’s judged by USOC staff, and we award our culinary gold medal. It’s a team approach and everyone is engaged in process. 

Q: At Ideation Fresh, our fresh menu challenge, which student chefs, faculty, speakers and Forum participants collaborate on, is always a big hit as well, generating creative ideas and new ways of thinking…

A: The athletes have done a phenomenal job with the challenge.  I was blown away by our bobsled team. When they got their mystery basket, they didn’t know what to do with jicama. They were all trying to figure out what it was. We could answer basic questions but weren’t allowed to give them any real guidance.

I hinted that you had it in the salad bar, but it was prepared as a jicama julienne salad, and they hadn’t seen it in that root form before. So, they cut the jicama in pieces with a cookie cutter shaped like a star and actually fried them in a frying pan with a little olive oil and used them as garnishes on the plate. It was so creative. I said, we have our next culinary team right here. 

A few weeks ago, 15 athletes made a giant sushi roll at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. It stretched from one end of the kitchen to the other, and all the athletes who signed up got to participate. They shared pictures on social media. (Editor’s note: you can watch the spirited video of their creation here.]

We’ve done recipe ideas on the backs of Coca-Cola cans, where you can use Coca Cola in barbeque sauce and things of that nature. We’ve also done recipes and social media clips on our USOC website with Chobani yogurt, which is a wonderful sponsor as well.

Then there’s our terrific partner McDonald’s. We have access to all their products and the traceability of every one of those products globally, which is great, and this goes on and on. But obviously the top players in the marketplace in the different categories are our Olympic partners.

Q: Do you maintain consistency with your menus across venues, and is that important?  It sounds like you have a lot on your plate! How involved to you get in the menu execution and quality control?

A: I oversee the menus, but I delegate a lot of responsibility. I intervene if I see a repetition, or something is not quite what we’re looking for.  I can tell you immediately if someone didn’t follow the recipe in color, taste and texture. Our chef has to follow that recipe to a tee. We know if you add more butter it might taste differently, but it’s all tied to the integrity of that information, and our reputation and integrity are tied to that.

We wouldn’t want to provide wrong information. Each person responsible for producing that dish, whether it’s the pantry person, cutting all the fruits and vegetables, to the chef preparing it to the person serving it, to the person putting the nutritional sign up, we have to be sure it matches up 100 percent. We not only have the nutrition information but we identify every allergen on every recipe and every menu sign. If Johnny is allergic to something and hasn’t told us, the information is there for him.

Consistency is the key. We don’t go back to any restaurant where we don’t get consistent, high quality product.  I even have signs in the kitchen on the importance of our service standards. We call it the five rings of service: anticipate customer needs, communicate, continue to grow, maintain consistency, and get to a yes.  Every employee is empowered to make decisions right at the serving line, just as every athlete is empowered to make his or her own food choices. It’s all about empowering the team.

Q: How can produce suppliers join in that effort? What are the key points you’d like attendees to take away from your talk? Any additional thoughts you’d like to add…

A: For generations, we’ve been told to eat your fruits and vegetables. We come back again full swing. I think it’s important for produce suppliers to invite foodservice providers to their operations, to get us out to the farms, and to really showcase the quality of your product, whether tomatoes are going into a can or into a salad. 

This past August I went to a tomato field in California to look at the tomatoes being harvested and processed for our pasta sauce. It was an amazing experience.  We must ask produce executives, what do we need to know that we don’t know to accelerate our relationships with the produce industry?  How do we break through these silos and create cross-sector product innovation to help play a critical role in our overall health and wellbeing, whether you’re an athlete, a student or a weekend warrior.

******

Being part of the diet of Olympic athletes is sort of like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the produce industry.  The big brands that pay up as sponsors are always identified, but the truth is that athletes value fresh fruits and vegetables and eat them heavily even though produce may not be a sponsored product.

The “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum is focused on helping to build produce consumption and finding ways to leverage opportunities such as this. The program this year has a heavy focus on menu development as a tool to boost produce usage in foodservice. You can see the agenda for this year’s program here.

Come and be a part of helping the industry access the opportunity at hand.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference, including the Global Trade Symposium, the regional tours and the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum right here.

You can also get an application for the new Foundational Excellence program by emailing us at this link.

The headquarters hotel, where all the action and networking is, is available here.

And travel discounts can be found right here.




Understanding The Complexities Of Farm Labor Culture Gives Better Understanding Of What’s Happening In Mexico 

When The Los Angeles Times published a piece focused on agriculture labor abuse in Mexico, titled Hardship on Mexico’s Farms, a Bounty for U.S. Tables, and followed up with pieces such as Produce Industry Promises to Improve Mexican Farmworker Conditions and Mexican Farm Strike Leaders to Meet with Growers as Crops Rot, we analyzed these articles in pieces such as DAMAGING LOS ANGELES TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT MEXICAN LABOR, Though Incomplete And Unbalanced, Puts Retailers And Receivers On Notice… and IS THE PUNDIT SCROOGE? IS FAIR TRADE AN ANSWER? The LA Times And Coalition Of Immokalee Workers Tell Us How To Solve Mexico’s Labor Problems.

One advantage of being the Pundit is that the smartest people in the industry often tip us off to productive angles to help further the industry discussion on key issues. In this case, Michael McCartney, who has participated in several Pundit pieces, including Will PTI Put Liability Onus In Retailers’ Court? and Getting A Better Grasp On Traceability, sent us this brief note:

Great Response to the LA Times piece! There are many facets to this story. You may want to reach out to Amy Wolfe who heads up Agsafe to get her take on FLCs.

— Michael McCartney
Principal
QLM Consulting

Well, Michael has never guided us incorrectly before, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Amy Wolfe
President/CEO
AGSafe
Modesto, California

Q: We’re interested to hear your thoughts on issues raised by The Los Angeles Times series on agriculture worker abuses in Mexico.  Have you had a chance to read the piece and our related coverage in the Perishable Pundit, which has opened quite a firestorm of debate?

A: Jim Prevor is known for stirring the pot and challenging people to engage in important discussions. It’s essential for people to not just see the LA Times piece as the explosive expose that it is, but to go deeper into the issues magnified in the piece to have a better understanding of what to do about it. 

Q: Could you tell us about AgSafe and how your background informs you?

A: Sure. Ag Safe is a non-profit organization. We came into existence in 1991 as a response to regulatory changes here in California. At that time, we became the first state to mandate all businesses, regardless of industry and size, have a formal written safety program; what we know as the Injury and Illness, Prevention Plan.

A coalition of agricultural employers with an emphasis on the front end of the supply chain, from agriculture trade associations, the workers’ compensation/insurance industry and California university cooperative ag extension programs, which had been dabbling in issues related to worker safety for a few years, came together and said, “This is a game changer for the ag industry.”  

Q: Did the regulatory changes challenge the types of safety programs in place? Were the safety programs sufficient?

A: Looking at grower and farm labor contract elements, it was a matter of just recognizing while many businesses have a culture of safety, it was certainly a very fluid informal process. It was very much “do the job, do it safely, take care of yourself.” But it wasn’t a formal, very rigorous process of developing a written program, unless you were a much larger international organization and you had begun to do that from a best practices standpoint.

Q:  What actions did you take to address this phenomenon of fragmented, informal cultural norms?  

A: This coalition looked to training as the best mechanism for the industry to meet regulatory changes. It took three years of very grassroots, townhouse-style educational forums across the state of California to educate predominantly the grower segment of the industry on what these regulations required.

Q: What were the key problems discovered during these training sessions?  Were many growers out of touch with the legal requirements?  Are these technical glitches or more significant breaches? How complex are these fixes?

A: At the end of three years, this coalition came back together and said it wasn’t just that folks didn’t understand; they didn’t know the snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. The issues surrounding worker safety and caring for our workforce transcend so many states and regulatory agencies. It really can become a very difficult area of the law, if you’re not an attorney or someone who specializes in this line of work, to grasp exactly how many people are holding you accountable for the way you care for your workers.  

There really wasn’t an organization like ours beyond the scope of the Injury and Illness Prevention Plan. We found a home at the Center for Agricultural Business at California State University Fresno. With grant funding, we spent several years as part of an incubator project, developing partnerships with like-minded organizations and need-based training programs and curriculums.

Q: How did the scope of your work change?

A: In the mid-2000s, we expanded our reach from doing training with farmers and contractors. We became an approved training center through the state labor commissioner for labor standard enforcement to provide the continuing education for farm labor contractors here in California.  It allowed us to expand beyond the scope of just safety to issues that those of us in corporate America would consider human-resources-related.

Q: What did you find to be the most pressing concerns?

A: We began to discover small- to medium-size growers, and packers/shippers as well, tend to have an individual or a couple of people responsible for the workers, period. From payroll records and making sure people are paid under the right wage order with overtime calculated properly, to workers’ compensation for injury and filing claims, to proper training on how to operate equipment.

A lot of smaller operators don’t have silos for an HR department, a safety department, and a compliance department like larger businesses. It’s really just one or two people, like an office manager. It could be somebody’s wife or spouse who takes care of the workers.   

There really was this evolving need to not just specialize in safety and health issues connected to agriculture, but to grow our knowledge and our subject expertise and relationships to bring in human resource issues as well. We have a captive audience that says, “I know what I need to do for respirator fit testing, and I know what I need to do for forklift training, and I understand chemical pesticide safety. But what do I do about wage-per-hour related issues, and the 10-minute breaks, and how do I capture that information properly?” So we expanded our services to include those types of issues.

Not only do we provide research, training and information in a community forum, but we work with companies on a one-on-one basis, customizing and tailoring programs, which is particularly beneficial for small- and medium-size business owners. How do you develop a system that works with the realities of your organization and your financial resources?

Q: Isn’t that the sticking point?

A: These things are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to sacrifice your business principles, caring for your workers and creating a culture of mutual respect. It takes time, deliberate thought and building upon and gleaning from those who have come before you. But it reaps incredible rewards for your organization. And it has positive business results, improved efficiencies, decreased worker injuries, and people want to come to work. You can look at yourself in the mirror and know you’re doing right by the people, who are so critical to your business.

Q: Could you give us a breakdown of your client base within the supply chain? And are you completely focused on California firms and requirements within the State?  Are many of your programs applicable on a national basis?

A: We have an equal breakdown between farmers and contractors, and packers/shippers and processors. We can do more even further down the supply chain. In our five-year strategic plan, we’re looking at how we can have a greater presence on a national scale. We’ve begun to do work in Florida, and we’ve been in Arizona for the last couple of years because of the natural crossover between the Imperial Valley and Yuma. We’re examining how we can provide our services nationally. There isn’t an organization like ours in other states.

Q: How is your organization unique?

A: You have safety and health centers that are coordinated through the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. And there are a couple of other organizations that exist on a national scale, but they’re all very focused on research and have a very academic feel to them, whereas we are very much hands-on.

Our organization was founded by practitioners. Our education team is made up of safety and health specialists. My director of education was a safety manager in the agriculture industry for 20 years. Another worked in the food processing industry as a human resources manager. We bring in people who have been in the trenches figuring these issues out, and we speak from personal experience. So, while you’ll see loss-control specialists from the workers compensation industry, and a variety of people in the support industry, we’re unique because we’ve walked the path and worn the shoes of those folks we’re trying to help.

Q: Do you see a disconnect or lack of understanding between employers and their workers?

A: Often times, yes. We’re also committed to the cultural realities of our workforce. All members of my education team are not just bilingual, but bicultural. They were born and raised in Mexico and came to the United States at another point in their lives.  If we’re going to have a meaningful impact in keeping people safe, there has to be a recognition and understanding of the culture they come from, the formal education they have or have not received, their literacy and language skills.

We’re a nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization. We’re not here to argue about immigration status. We’re not here to discuss whether or not they should speak English.  These are all conversations to be had at another time and another place.

Our responsibility and purpose is to protect these people who are dedicating themselves to make sure we all have the healthiest and, quite frankly, the least expensive food available to us. And they have the right to go home with their fingers and their toes. And be paid the wage they should be paid, and be treated with respect. 

Q: Aren’t these basic rights already built into our legal system? Is it just a matter of learning the right strategies and tactics to implement them, and create an effective process to insure they are being followed? 

A: Effectively, you’re talking about changing adult behavior. You’re asking adults to transform how they do things. We‘ve invested hours and hours making sure our education team is not only proficient in the subject matter, but in how adults learn, and in how to create the right learning environment. The California farm worker has an average education of third grade. How do we work with less educated workers to convey highly technical information, and insure they not only understand it, but they buy into why it’s important to modify their behavior?

At face value, it seems so simple, but if you’re really committed to making a change, you have to get into deeper issues. Sometimes, politics can take over and be what everybody wants to focus on. It requires clarity of purpose and having a conscientious conversation. Again, I’m not here to get into the rights of these individuals, whether or not they should be allowed to be in this country. That’s a different platform and a different organization. I’m here to make sure people know these workers are doing dangerous work. I have an obligation to these workers, that they go home safely, everything intact. I’ll have those other conversations in my personal time. 

Q; Why is farming so dangerous? What are the biggest safety and health concerns facing farm workers?

A: The government has said farming is the most dangerous industry after coal mining. The data comes from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, based on the number of fatalities per 100,000 workers. [Editor’s note: you can read more on these stats here and here]. The crux is because of the equipment and machinery used.

Q: Don’t these hazards fluctuate based on the kinds of crops and farming methods?

A:  Yes, but they remain a core danger, even when you have an industry like the specialty crop industry in California, which is a similar industry in Mexico because of the crops we are growing. We have reliance on a lot of bodies, yet there is still a lot of equipment, tractors, forklifts and custom machinery; for instance, when you look at the nut industry, the shakers, the sweepers, and the augers. There are so many pieces of custom equipment that now complement the hand-harvesting and hand-pruning of our large workforce. This is not a paper-cut kind of equipment. These are large pieces of heavy machinery that cause serious injuries and fatalities. 

Q: The LA Times piece reported some egregious violations and abuses. In your experience, have you discovered any serious worker safety problems, intentional or unintentional?

A: It’s an interesting thing. I’ve been with AgSafe for six years in June, and I’ve worked in agriculture my entire career, 15-plus years. I have yet to encounter one person who hasn’t genuinely cared about their people. In this industry, growers and farm labor contractors recognize their workers are as important, if not the most important element in their ability to get their crop to market.

We focus a lot on the drought in California, and water is such an issue, and we talk about air quality and other elements that challenge the agricultural industry in the State. But at the end of the day, people are what make this industry turn. They are what make the world go around.

When we see the issues, honestly, it’s really a function of lack of knowledge; it’s not to cause harm, it’s not intentional, and it’s not a conscientious decision to provide improper equipment.

Q: How complex are these different health and safety regulations, compensation procedures and other labor requirements?

A: We work with 11 different federal agencies to have knowledge of the various issues and oversights when it comes to workers. An almond farmer knows how to farm almonds, but the expectation that he knows all the different agencies that have oversight and dictate how he treats his workers, I’m sorry, but it’s unrealistic.

A lot of times, the position we end up being in is that they truly didn’t know there was a law. They’ve done it this way for five generations, talking to their people about looking out for one another and using common sense. That’s what their grandfathers did, and what their great grandfathers did.  

So, when you have someone like me come in and say, well actually, five years ago, or three years ago, or just last year, the federal government or state of California decided this is how you have to do it. It really does come down to a lack of knowledge. Equally important, things are written in complicated legal terms, many times by people that have zero farming knowledge. How does what you told me look like in real life? How do I actually implement that in a practical way?

Q: That sounds like a conundrum. Could you point to some examples?

A: We work at night in different commodities here in California. The wine grape industry has been doing it for years. Folks put on the bright orange vests with the reflective tape so if they’re out working, someone can see them. Now the State says it has to be a Class 2 high visibility vest, with a specific amount of reflective tape and color brightness.

People think they are complying with the law, but there’s a good chance they’re not meeting the classification change. We’re getting down to a nitty-gritty level of detail. Growers are providing effective reflective vests, but politics being what it is, they have to replace them.

Q: You describe a technical change, frustratingly bureaucratic in nature, which doesn’t address a significant safety problem. That’s quite different from the violations exposed in the LA Times piece…

A: The working conditions that we see in Mexico are in a very different environment than we see in the U.S. That has been driven by regulation and by culture. You don’t see children working in California in agriculture in the same way you see it in Mexico. You actually see more kids on the farm in the Midwest and back East than you see in California. And that’s just the nature of the crops you’re growing and the business you’re in.

In the Midwest, you’re talking about commodities — corn, soybeans — where you still have the small family farm, you have your parents, your kids, you may have a couple of guys helping on the property, because it can all be managed with equipment, large combines, large tractors and doesn’t require the bodies. Even though a lot of our businesses are still family-owned, the scope of work is so large because our crops require so many people. It has a very different flavor to it.

We have mandatory education requirements and truancy laws. That’s a big difference in cultures between what exists in Mexico and the United States, and within California, even though we are using a predominantly Mexican workforce. There has been a cultural expectation shift of what’s done here versus what’s done there.

Q: Can you expound?

A: Because of the migratory nature of the commodities in Mexico, you see entire families working their way up through the different regions during the growing seasons, making that loop and taking their kids with them. Moms want to keep an eye on the children, and to be sure they are OK because they are not in their hometown in the community they grew up in. Their kids end up in the fields with them, and as such end they also wind up working in the fields.  

Q: So any solutions must start with an understanding of cultural mores in conjunction with familial migratory demands of field labor, and the related challenges?  

A: The growers in Mexico have not done enough to insure they address these issues from the larger cultural perspective. In the same way we’re looking at how to get adults to change their behavior to be safe on the job, it’s a similar concept. You have to get to the root of the problem.

This is a migratory workforce with a culture that says, “My children are not staying with a grandmother or an aunt. They are coming with me so I can protect them. I’m not sending them to day care or a school. I want to keep my eyes on them.”

So the grower community needs to take steps to first, acknowledge the cultural reasons behind the actions and work with those workers to help develop a solution that would appease the families so they know their children are safe and getting an education in school while those families’ parents work in the fields.   

Q: Can some of these solutions prove costly? Do you find smaller and mid-size growers can afford the requirements needed?

A: It becomes a function of cost, and why there’s an opportunity for trade associations within those commodities and states to come together and ask what they can do to facilitate change. It does become difficult for smaller growers.

Many here in California talk about the regulatory burden in trying to address some of these challenges. It costs a lot of money. If anyone understands the way the system works, none of us are willing to pay more money at the grocery store. It is all a trickle down of this expectation that the farmer absorbs those costs. Yet he has no one to pass those costs on to.

I’m not sure average U.S. consumers fully understand they drive this entire ship. They have total control because, through their pocket books, they have said they are not going to pay anymore for x, y, or z. We then have to figure out a way to make it work within the confines of what’s available from a fiscal standpoint.

Q: What role do retailers play in this scenario?

A: Growers in Mexico and their counterparts in the United States, as well as the retailers buying and receiving product, must play a role. If everyone is coming together and acknowledging change needs to be made, then everyone has to be willing to invest the time and resources necessary for a systemic solution.

Q: What are the biggest challenges moving forward?

A: We had an opportunity to meet with growers who do some work in Mexico, and organizations looking to address these problems, prior to the LA Times exposé coming out. The LA Times piece certainly shined a very bright light on an issue that merits greater attention. No one is discounting that problems exist. Changing a culture is very difficult. It doesn’t happen overnight or with a heavy hand. It can’t be purely a regulatory or enforcing tactic because you’re not going to see long term results. You’ll only see a short-term fix and not a systemic solution.

It does mean taking the time and sitting down and having conversations with the workers themselves. We see this all the time. You can do a training program on wearing protective clothing. For example, in California, we have a litany of regulations about how long people have to wait before reentering a field after pesticides are sprayed so they don’t risk exposure, and the protective clothing and respirator equipment to wear.

Even with logical, thoughtful regulations, it’s not enough to say, ‘just do it.’ You have to talk about the procedures and repercussions if you don’t follow them. Ask workers, why aren’t you wearing your respirator suit? Does it not fit properly? Do you get really hot in it and does it make you uncomfortable? There has to be a two-way dialogue to find out from the worker’s perspective. What barriers prevent you from making the changes we’re talking about? 

People dictate from on high and expect everyone to toe the line. That’s not going to solve the problems exposed in the LA Times piece. You need to talk to these men and women to find solutions. What will help make this transition to a safer workplace, where your children are protected? What do we need to do to solve this problem?

Q: You point out that workers may have access to the necessary safety equipment and procedures, but may not be using it, or following the procedures properly?

A: When you think about it, a Tyvek suit is not a breathable material by nature because we’re trying to prevent a potentially dangerous chemical from penetrating the body. If someone is out working, even if it’s 75 degrees outside, it’s like having a greenhouse on your body. So you have guys saying, “I’m sweating, I’m just too hot in it.”

The physical environment it creates is unbearable. So let’s wait to do those activities until a cooler time of day so they will wear the suit. Stop writing them up and disciplining them, and actually ask them why they aren’t wearing the suit, and getting to the root of the issue.

Q: What you describe is a basic communication problem, with issues extrapolated by the cultural and linguistic divides…

A: It’s why it takes getting people out of compartmentalized mindsets, going into the fields and the processing plants and experiencing the conditions themselves, walking in the workers’ shoes, and listening to their genuine issues. Solutions to the problems are with the workers.  

Q: With everything we’ve discussed, could you transition back to the LA Times piece, and help put it into context?   

A: I think the LA Times piece was negligent and a gross exaggeration of the circumstances. From my standpoint, in the years since I’ve had this job, I go on the farm or a processing facility and I talk to management and meet with the executive leadership. I’ve never met anyone that is deliberately or consciously causing harm to their workers. Just the opposite; they want to do everything they can to protect them. 

Q: Yet the LA Times piece honed in on some egregious acts by particular growers…

A: The article painted a picture of an industry where you have these evil guys in the back room twirling their mustaches, thinking of all the bad things that could happen to these people, and not caring for them. In my experience, owners are third-generation and their workers are third-generation, and they work together as their parents and grandparents did. I struggle to believe that it’s a sinister situation, like villains from a Walt Disney movie. I haven’t met those people.

I’m not naïve. It’s not to say people like that don’t exist. But I’ve traversed the State and many other states, and I’ve been in this industry a long time. It’s not the people I’ve encountered. That’s not to say bad things don’t happen, or there are people out there solely bent on generating a profit and will do whatever is necessary, because people like that do exist.  

Those people are the minority in this industry. This industry has its roots in family. Even though California’s agriculture industry is painted as this big corporate farming, it’s still family businesses. When you have an industry that comes from that familial center, there is a natural extension into how we run our businesses. It’s still a very family-oriented environment.

My experiences have taught me, more often than not, it’s a lack of knowledge and lack of understanding of how to fix a problem as opposed to a conscientious and measured attempt to prevent workers from being protected.  

Q: Do you meet with worker rights groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)?  

A: We have had some interaction. A great example, as a charitable organization, we’ve received grant funding over the years from the California Wellness Foundation, which addresses all types of health issues for people in the State. For years, it has had a program around occupational health. We were funded by CWF, as were a number of worker rights organizations, so we did have a chance to interact and share ideas and look at how we’re both trying to be of service to the same population.

We’re beginning to do more work in Florida. Sitting down with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is on our to-do list, reaching out, learning how the group came to be, and hearing about some its successes, and how it interacts with grower groups.

Q: Do you get push back because your clients are the growers and farm contractors, rather than the workers?

A: We make no bones about letting people know we reach the worker by working with the owner. Our model has found if you don’t have the buy-in from owners, if you aren’t helping them know how to do this, you may not have the success you want to have by going to the workers directly.

Q: You’re a liaison and mediator of sorts…

A: Everything we do is about education, training and resources. We have an education series for owners, all the way down to the workers. Harvest food safety protocol as an example, we have a series for all groups in the supply chain, the ownership, food safety management, the crew boss or foreman responsible for managing people in the field, and then the workers themselves.

The concepts are the same, the principles are the same, but involve very different messages and the appropriate training and resources, depending on what role you play in the organization. This creates consistency of education and messaging throughout the hierarchy.

We do sexual-harassment-prevention training classes across that entire spectrum as well. We teach the human resources manager, what are the laws, your responsibilities, the agencies with oversight, and what do you do if you have a problem.

You must craft an appropriate policy and ongoing training within your organization. Then the conversation with the workers; what are your rights, how should you be protected, do you know your company has a policy, where do you go if you have a problem, how do you report it? It’s all the same information but we’re targeting the message appropriate for the audience, looking through different lenses.

Q: A lot of this comes down to communication …

A: Exactly. Inherently, successful businesses require successful communications up and down the chain. It can’t be a one-way system of communication. The cultural, linguistic and literacy challenges add a whole layer of complexity. At the end of the day, the grower just wants to farm almonds. At what point does the farmer look at what’s involved and say, I give up?

Q: And this comes within a politically charged climate of unsettled immigration reform, which channels another level of complexity… You say you’ve stayed out of the political fray. How do you do that?

A: Politics absolutely adds to the complexity. We get asked quite a bit to get into the politics. My board of directors and I have been very committed to remain a neutral resource. Part of the reason we work very well with those 11 agencies is because I don’t have a lobbyist, or a super Pac.

I’m not putting political pressure on their bosses and their bosses’ bosses, who are all political appointees. They see us trying to do right by our workforce. Quite frankly, it gives us an advantage. We’re given a heads up when they’re considering changes to regulations. We made a deliberate decision to stay out of the politics because it allows us to be much more effective in the work that we do.

Q: To sum up this extensive discussion, what are the most important things you want readers to know?

A: The biggest thing I want readers to know is that we exist, we are a resource for the industry and are expanding our reach. I’d also like to dispel misconceptions. People look at the companies on our board of directors, and our larger donors and think these big companies are the only ones we help. That’s absolutely not true.

We serve more small- and medium-size owners. Part of the reason we are a charitable organization is to help keep costs down for them. People think we only work in California, and only with farm contractors. There are lots of misconceptions around the scope and depth of our services. Our vision is to be a one-stop solution for employers to address this cacophony of issues affecting their workforce, whether food safety, worker safety, or wage and work conditions.

A grower has done right by his workers, but is scratching his head, dealing with bureaucracy, overlapping federal and state regulations, and multiple duplicate forms. The pendulum has swung to overzealous. It’s no longer about insuring that worker rights are maintained. No elected official or appointee of an elected official wants to be seen as the guy who was falling down on the job. I can appreciate that after a while, an employer throws his hands in the air.

For years we’ve held workshops partnering with Western Growers, but that’s not the only way we do things. We now have this breadth of knowledge all in one place and are here to help companies one on one. We like to say we’re small but mighty. We come from working in farming and have a personal connection with this industry, what it is like in the fields. For us, there’s a real calling and purpose.  

Q:  This is an angle missing from the LA Times series…

A: We’re part of the solution, which doesn’t grab headlines in this frantic environment. What we do isn’t sexy or sensational. Migrant issues and social impacts are complicated. As an industry, we need to be more media-savvy in getting a balanced message out and learn how to tell our story, especially to people not rooted in agriculture.

*******

Wow, what an incredible organization! So focused on not just the right issues but on the real obstacles to implementing solutions.

It is easy to paint people as Simon Legree or demand laws. It is so hard to get down to the micro-level of people’s lives and real business operations and actually solve problems. So a hat tip to Amy and her board for working in this manner.

Still, we don’t think that the rest of the world should get a free pass and that these problems should be seen as solely a grower problem.

The story about the wine grape harvesters wearing the high-visibility vests sounds small and unimportant, but you multiply that by a thousand such edicts, sometimes contradictory, from various government agencies at various levels of government, and you wind up having an enormous waste of resources for little or no gain in safety or anything else.

Half the time, if you research the matter, you find out that the provider of many solutions are gaming the system. In the wine grape harvesting scenario, we have no idea how this particular change came about, but certainly it would make sense for high-visibility vest manufacturers to implement minor changes every few years and then try to get the new vests required by law or regulation.

It is also worth noting that these things all have negative competitive implications for California farmers. California has no authority to make farmers in other states or countries follow these regulations. So these are costs California growers must shoulder, but not competitors from other states or countries.

We also don’t think retailers and other buyers should be given a free pass. When we wrote about child labor on a blueberry farm in Michigan in a piece titled, When Child Labor Laws Don’t Necessarily Help Children, we pointed out that retailers terminating procurement from this farm weren’t actually helping these children. They still had no school or summer program to go to; they still had no way of getting to and from such programs that did exist and now their parents would also be unemployed!

The LA Times piece was very unfair because it didn’t quantify anything. Obviously all horrors are terrible, and we want them purged from the supply chain. But it makes a big difference in understanding the nature of the problem if 99% of production has the issue or 1% has the issue. One is a systemic problem; the other is a bad apple.

I remember when Joe Nucci was alive I would visit with him, and very often female laborers would want to give him a burrito or some other dish they made. He never turned them down. They were his people and he wanted the best possible relations with them. That has been my experience across production agriculture in the produce industry.

Organizations such as Agsafe are providing useful services in helping to translate that inclination into positive action.

Many thanks to Amy Wolfe for sharing what Agsafe is doing for the industry.

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