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Food safety initiative puts farmworkers front and center

When the topic is food safety, the first things that might come to mind for many are the farmers growing the food, the stores selling the food, and even the public health scientists who are testing the food to make sure it doesn’t contain any pathogens that could make us sick — or even kill us.

But what about the farmworkers harvesting and packing the food? What do they have to do with food safety, except, of course, that they should wash their hands before picking the food, whether it be first thing in the morning before they go into the fields or after using the bathroom facilities.

This green label can only be used on produce from suppliers who are certified by the Equitable Food Initiative, which works to improve the safety of fresh product while ensuring farmworkers' are in the loop as well as on the front lines in the war against pathogens.

This green label can only be used on produce from suppliers who are certified by the Equitable Food Initiative, which works to improve the safety of fresh produce while ensuring farmworkers are in the loop while they are on the front lines in the war against pathogens.

But, there’s more to it than that. Consider this: Farmworkers are often the first ones to see problems that could contaminate the crops. Problems such as deer droppings, livestock or dogs roaming the fields, unclean packing boxes or equipment, lack of the necessary hand-washing facilities, or even recent manure applications on nearby fields that could signal the possibility of pathogens from the manure drifting onto the crops.

In short, they’re the eyes and the ears for food safety out in the fields — an essential first link in the food safety chain that extends from the fields all the way to the stores or markets where we buy our food.

Important, yes. But how can the typical farming system go beyond training farmworkers about food safety to actually making it possible for them to alert managers or farmers about problems they might see out in the field.

That’s simple, some say. Just tell them to do it. But consider the situation from the perspective of farmworkers who are paid by how much they harvest. It’s all about speed. The faster they pick, the more they get paid.

Consider the workers who see some deer droppings in the immediate area where they are harvesting. That’s a food-safety alert of the first degree. In 2012, for example, lab tests confirmed that deer feces found in strawberry fields in Oregon were the source of E. coli 0157:H7 infections that killed one person and sickened at least 14 others. Deer droppings were also the likely source of the E. coli O157:H7 found in unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice in 1996, which sickened at least 65 people  and killed one child.

Now let’s hear what a farmworker says would happen if he alerted a manager about a situation like this:

“If I see something wrong and speak up, the first thing they would do is fire me,” farmworker Ramon Torres told Food Safety News in an earlier interview. While this does not reflect what happens on all farms, it is true in too many cases.

Why would he be fired? Because it would slow things down while the problem was being addressed. Sometimes it might be as simple as quickly putting up a barrier around the area where the droppings are seen. But it could also involve scouting an entire field to see if the deer have left droppings anywhere else before the workers can go back to harvesting.

Delays like that can be costly to the farmer, as well as to the farmworkers. It’s not how agriculture works. Instead, it’s about getting the crop picked as fast as possible so it can be loaded onto trucks and taken to the warehouse, processing center, or the stores.

Because crops are perishable, they’re not like other products such as car parts or computers. They have to be picked when they’re ready or they’ll rot in the fields — a loss for the farmworkers, the farmers, the retailers and the consumers.

Yet Torres is also pulled by his concerns about food safety.

“Our job is not just about picking the food,” he said. “I have very important decisions to make — decisions that will determine the health of my family and the people who will eat the food.”

In the midst of this dilemma is how little the farmworker’s voice counts for anything. Again, this is not true in all cases, but certainly reported frequently.

“Respect would be a very good thing,” he said. “I’ve never experienced that.”

That’s why Torres is interested in the Equitable Food Initiative, which is based on the belief that farmworkers play a key role in food safety because they’re the first line of defense in the battle against foodborne illnesses.

What is the Equitable Food Initiative?
EFI, which has been incubating since 2009 and began certifying produce farms in 2014, puts the spotlight on bringing growers, farmworkers, farmworker organizations and retailers together to improve working conditions, food safety practices and pesticide management in the produce industry. As such, it provides training and EFI certification, which, in turn, promotes the interests of workers, growers, retailers, food-service companies and consumers. Some refer to it as a “win, win, win” solution.

At the heart of all of this is the belief that collaboration among all of the partners — from field to market — will result in increased assurances that produce is harvested as safely as possible in conditions that respect the dignity of the workers.

“Building a safer and more equitable food system,” is how EFI puts it.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (left) met with (continuing from left) EFI Executive Director Peter O'Driscoll, Congresswoman Julia Brownley and Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers of America.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (left) met with (continuing from left) EFI Executive Director Peter O’Driscoll, Congresswoman Julia Brownley and Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers of America.

Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of Equitable Food Initiative, said the industry needs to be paying attention to the connection between food safety and the wages and working conditions of farmworkers.

And he points to this comment from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “… the farmworker is a key component in the food chain for ensuring the safety of covered produce.”

“Covered produce” is generally produce that will be eaten raw and is therefore covered by new produce regulations mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

As for strategy, EFI goes onto the farms and helps create a core leadership team made up of workers from every level of employment on the farm, who often, under typical situations, are “at odds” with each other. In contrast, said O’Driscoll, the EFI-developed teams are about problem solving and conflict resolution.

“We want to shift the culture of the farm,” said O’Driscoll. “We want to see the industry reward prevention — not sacrifice it to speed.”

The underlying premise of EFI is that the leadership teams work to ensure that the farm stays in compliance with food safety regulations and best practices day in and day out —  not just in anticipation of inspection audits. Having farmworkers on these leadership teams recognizes that they’re important players, O’Driscoll said.

On a practical and financial level — and why O’Driscoll and other EFI supporters believe in the initiative’s successful future — is the goal to improve consumer satisfaction while also protecting growers and stores from lawsuits triggered by foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls.

“These lawsuits and recalls have a multi-million dollar impact on farms and stores,” said O’Driscoll.

Stu Dalheim of Calvert Investments agrees. He said top retailers acknowledge that food safety and social accountability are significant vulnerabilities in the produce sector. That’s why he believes companies that embrace the EFI standards will be better investments.

“Farmworkers have a great deal of experience and perspective that can contribute to food safety, if that experience is sought and emphasized,” he said. “EFI helps to bring that farmworker knowledge to the fore.”

For the farmworkers, there’s the prospect of better wages and compensation for the role they play in food-safety efforts on farms.

“The stores and growers realize that investment in the farmworkers translates into prevention, which benefits everyone,” said O’Driscoll.

Farms that meet EFI’s strict food safety requirements, which are benchmarked to the Food Safety Modernization Act, earn the right to place EFI’s labels on their produce.

The labels say it all: “Responsibly grown. Farmworker assured.”

Who is EFI?
EFI, is an independent non-profit, which receives funding support from The Atlantic Philanthropies, Broad Reach Fund, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, Cedar Tree Foundation, Oxfam America and The Walt Disney Co.

Board members, who were instrumental in the development of the EFI Standards, include representatives from Costco Wholesale Corp., Consumer Federation of America, United Farm Workers, Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce International, Farmworker Justice, Oxfam America, and Bon Appetit Management Co.

UL Registrar LLC, a leading global safety science organization, is an official certification body for EFI and will be providing farm-based audits.

EFI has so far also certified four produce facilities in the United States, four in Mexico and one in Canada. It is working with other produce suppliers that seek to achieve certification later this year.

Windset-Farms-EFI-tomatoes

With its EFI certification, Windset Farms, a greenhouse grower, now has the right to use the green “Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured” label, shown here on the right side of a tomato package.

Andrew & Williamson’s Crisalida Berry Farm in Ventura County, CA, was the first in the nation to receive EFI certification. Others certified so far are: Houweling’s Tomatoes, Windset Farms, Keystone Fruit Marketing, Borton Fruit, Naturesweet Tomatoes and Alpine Fresh.

Retail collaborators are Costco Wholesale and Whole Foods Market.

In a 2013 news release about the formation of EFI, Costco official Arthur D. Jackson Jr., said “safe and wholesome produce begins with dedicated training of, respect for, and protection of farmworkers.”

In a March 17 news release this year, Whole Foods Markets official Robin Foster said the company was “thrilled” to add EFI to its list of recognized certifications under its “Responsibly Grown program.”

Without a doubt, having Costco and Whole Foods onboard are feathers in EFI’s cap, although both O’Driscoll and Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, agree that it’s important to get more retailers onboard.

“We need more retailers so we can ensure consumers have a safe food supply,” said Rodriguez in a video made during U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s April 8 visit to Andrew and Williamson Farms to learn more about EFI.

“We realize that it’s not the workers by themselves but workers working jointly with other organizations, retailers, buyers and consumers to bring this together. Certainly, EFI has done that. Our hats are off to you.”

In the same video, Labor Secretary Perez said “What I see here is an initiative that understands that we should reject false choices. When you’re in business, it’s not a choice between your workers and your bottomline and your customers or supply chain. You can build shared prosperity by recognizing when we’re all in this together we can all do well together. …This (EFI) is the best example of this.

“This may seem outlier today, but this is going to be mainstream tomorrow. I have no doubt about it.”

Latest news
On May 2 EFI announced that Costco will be receiving fresh fruits and vegetables labeled “Responsibly Grown. Farmworker Assured” from Windset Farms’ operation in Delta, British Columbia.

Jeff Madu, director of sales at Windset, said the company is committed to providing consumers with the highest quality produce possible, which includes value and quality through the entire food system made up of workers, growers, retailers and consumers.

“Our certification with EFI makes sure that our workers are receiving fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions,” he said.

Windset Farms workers Byron Lopez (background) and Parminder Khosa helped with simultaneous interpreting during an EFI session at the greenhouse grower's facility.

Windset Farms workers Byron Lopez (background) and Parminder Khosa helped with simultaneous interpreting during an EFI session at the greenhouse grower’s facility.

For EFI, certifying the Canadian facility posed a unique challenge because the company’s workers are a mixed group. Some speak Punjabi, others Spanish and others English.

O’Driscoll said EFI’s trainers collaborated with Windset to provide simultaneous tri-lingual interpretation.

Maki Mukai, Windset marketing assistant, said the workers at the Delta farm get paid British Columbia’s minimum wage of $10.45 per hour, which will be going up in September. In addition, they can earn performance bonuses.

All of the farming is done in high-tech greenhouses with biosecurity measures that ensure only the employees and approved tour groups can enter The farm furnishes the employees with uniforms, hair nets and gloves.

As for the farmworkers’ housing, which must pass provincial inspections, it includes laundry facilities and showers.

“All ideas of the farmworkers are considered,” Mukai said. “We get communication flows from workers about problems that managers might not notice. We think that having EFI certification is a good investment that will pay for itself.”

She also said that workers who are trained to be part of the leadership team “will likely rather stay with us.” That’s a distinct advantage because farms on or near the West Coast are experiencing labor shortages.

Meanwhile, Windset’s farm in California is working toward EFI certification.

Going back to farmworker Torres, he said “EFI would help us not to be afraid to speak up. It would be very good for us because it is something that would take away our fear.”

Respect is another plus in the equation.

“Finally, they would be listening to us — the people who are working in the field,” he said. “We would have a voice. Now we could be respected as people — people who pick food for all of you.”

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