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Produce industry questions Chipotle protestors’ motivation

Protests at two Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants Thursday by individuals purporting to be food safety advocates were actually publicity stunts staged by the Teamsters to cast a shadow on fresh produce supplier Taylor Farms, according to industry associations.

Protestors affiliated with the Teamsters union handed out leaflets outside two Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in California Thursday. They cited food safety concerns about fresh produce supplier Taylor Farms. Produce industry trade groups were quick to defend Taylor Farms, saying the protests were a publicity stunt related to a labor dispute.

Protestors affiliated with the Teamsters union handed out leaflets outside two Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in California Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters)

The day before the protest, the union cited Taylor Farms’ food recalls, alleged food safety violations at the farm’s facilities, and the safety of Chipotle customers among the key motivations for their efforts at restaurants in Sacramento and Manteca.

The release encouraged protestors to use signs referencing “dirty tomatoes” and suggested the Denver-based burrito chain’s recent string of foodborne illness outbreaks were related to produce from Taylor Farms.

“In today’s protest, the Teamsters have resorted to tired tactics from a discredited union playbook,” was the reaction Thursday from Western Growers, a 90-year-old association representing the fresh produce industry in California and Arizona.

“Unable to convince Taylor Farms’ employees of the value of paying compulsory dues for their representation, the Teamsters have instead decided to bully the company and tarnish Taylor Farms’ sterling reputation in an effort to eliminate the jobs of the very workers they desire to represent. This vindictive act of retaliation is deplorable and should be widely condemned.”

Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms and third-generation produce grower, confirmed that the union had unsuccessfully attempted to organize workers of the Salinas-based company in 2014. The company also issued a statement Thursday.

“These allegations are baseless and simply a veiled attempt by the Teamsters to impose their will and force bargaining with the union. Taylor Farms is committed to supporting our employees and their right to freely choose whether or not to join a union through a secret-ballot election process,” according to the corporate statement.

“In fact, there was a vote in March 2014 and employees eligible to vote decided against representation by the Teamsters union.”

Following the noon-hour protests the Teamsters repeated allegations about food safety issues at Taylor Farms and released quotes from workers who declined to allow their names to be used. The Taylor Farms employees claim Chipotle-required food safety tests for Salmonella are sometimes skipped because of time constraints.

Chipotle officials did not respond to requests for comment on the protests or the allegations about Taylor Farms.

Taylor Farms fresh-cut celery was linked to a foodborne illness outbreak in late 2015, but it was not among the half dozen outbreaks linked to Chipotle restaurants from July through December 2015. The celery was used in Costco chicken salad and was implicated in a seven-state E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 19 people.

Despite that outbreak, Taylor Farms holds a high reputation in the fresh produce industry. Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer at the Produce Marketing Association, voiced strong support for the company Thursday.

“Taylor Farms is an innovator and thought leader in produce food safety,” Whitaker said. “They have invested substantially in developing science and risk-based food safety programs.

“Taylor Farms has made investments in the Center for Produce Safety over the years to fuel scientific research on produce food safety on behalf of the entire industry, developed proprietary and truly innovative products for produce wash systems to reduce cross-contamination risks, shared their food safety achievements openly with the industry and the FDA, worked with their suppliers at all levels across the supply chain to help them improve their food safety practices and invested heavily to upgrade facilities to improve their safety performance.”

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