WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2016 - Activists who say they want to raise labor standards on farms are hoping to emulate the success that the animal welfare movement has had in getting food companies and retailers to require farms to change production practices on livestock and poultry operations. The jury is still out on the labor issue four years into the effort.

The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) was announced four years ago with the backing of a major retailer, Costco Wholesale Corp., and a food service company, Bon Appetit Management Co., a unit of the Britain-based Compass Group, as well as consumer advocates and labor leaders.

EFI has 34 pages of standards, including those covering pesticide usage and food safety, and has certified compliance by farms in California and Mexico operated by seven growers, including Andrew and Williamson, Earthbound and NatureSweet.

Costco, based in Kirkland, Washington, was a driving force behind EFI. Whole Foods Market also is participating: EFI certification allows growers to qualify for Whole Foods’ preferred supplier program, called “Responsibly Grown.”

Other retailers, however, have been slow to join, and the initiative faces strong opposition from major growing groups who charge that labor unions are seeking to use the program to organize farm workers.

Peter ODriscoll, EFI’s executive director, says the main holdup is because the Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh Produce Association decided a year ago that they were forming a joint committee to develop a recognized list of proper labor practices. “Not surprisingly, a lot of folks are waiting to hear what the committee comes up with,” O’Driscoll said.

The PMA-United Fresh panel was started with 16 members, divided among produce growers and buyers.

Hanging over the industry’s work on labor standards is what appears to be a growing shortage of farm labor. As Agri-Pulse has reported, wages have been rising sharply amid a steady decline in immigration from Mexico and a tightening labor supply for growers. Workers in tree nuts and oranges have seen wages rise by at least 6 percent, and growers of many other crops are paying at least 4 percent more.

“Retailers are increasingly getting shorted because there is inadequate labor in the fields to provide them with the products they need. That labor shortage is starting to expand through central Mexico and points further south. Same thing in coffee,” said Erik Nicholson, a senior vice president of the United Farm Workers who chairs the EFI board. UFW is one of several labor groups represented in EFI.

“So, there’s real concern amongst the retailers about where are they going to be securing product a year from now, three years from now, five years from now, especially as many of them continue to grow.”

At the same time, California has passed a new law that will require farm workers to be paid overtime when they work more than 10 hours a day.

O’Driscoll said he doesn’t think retailers worry that EFI certification would exacerbate the worker shortage. He believes the tightening labor market should make it easier for EFI-certified growers to find workers because theyll be more attractive places to work.

“We’re confident that workers are going to prefer to work on the EFI certified operations,” he said. The labor shortage “is a real challenge for the industry going forward, absolutely, but I don’t see it as a challenge for EFI at this point.”

Even as EFI seeks additional retailers and growers to join the program, it’s also tweaking its standards. EFI plans to ditch a minimum wage requirement – $9.05 an hour – and instead require that retailers commit to paying a bonus to growers that will be passed through to workers. The bonus is intended to recognize the additional responsibility that workers take on in helping farmers meet standards for food safety and other issues. EFI compliance audits will ensure that a bonus gets passed on to the workers, O’Driscoll said.

There is no requirement in the standards for workers to be paid overtime, but growers cannot require an employee to work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. EFI also has detailed standards on benefits, worker health and safety protections, freedom of association, dispute settlement, employer-provided housing and other issues.

Four producer groups, including Western Growers and California Citrus Mutual, signed a statement to the Producers News this summer blasting the initiative as unnecessary and costly to growers.

“EFI is a solution looking for a problem,” the groups wrote. “To understand why a labor-led non-profit is vying so hard for industry participation, just follow the money. All the extra training and certification isn’t free for the producers but labor’s unfettered access to a producer’s workforce is priceless.”

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, says the EFI program would stick growers with added costs while making it harder for them to compete with foreign operations that don’t comply with the same standard. It’s “another program that the growers did not have meaningful input on,” he said.

Costco and Bon Appetit are represented on EFI’s board along with growers Andrew and Williamson, NatureSweet and Keystone Fruit, and two major consumer advocacy groups, The Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumer Federation of America. Farmworker Justice and the Pesticide Action Network also are included.

Even so, EFI is in the process of certifying additional farming operations in Mexico, Canada and Guatemala as well as the United States. Fourteen operations have been certified so far, many of them in Mexico. Seven of the operations supply Andrew and Williamson. An additional 12 operations are in various stages of getting certified. EFI hopes to certify another 25 operations in 2017.

O’Driscoll said he discussed the program with an additional 20 producers during a recent meeting of the Produce Marketing Association and that at least five or six are interested in EFI certification.


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