(Feb. 5) A letter from Burger King warning that it may not buy tomatoes from Immokalee, Fla., — an area where a workers’ union has demanded fast-food companies to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes — has stirred uneasiness among Florida growers.

Miami-based Burger King Corp. denies the Dec. 18 letter was linked the workers’ wage issue.

The letter, sent to tomato suppliers, requests they develop and submit to the fast-food chain “contingency plans for the possibility that we would choose not to purchase tomatoes grown on farms in the Immokalee, Florida, region.”

The Dec. 18 letter, signed by Steven Grover, Burger King’s vice president of food safety, quality assurance and regulatory compliance, tells buyers the request is to prevent supply disruptions and that packers should develop plans for a phased implementation of the plan starting with next year’s winter growing season.

A Jan. 16 Associated Press article linked the letter to demands for higher worker wages by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a labor group that has lobbied Burger King and other fast food operators to pay workers an additional penny a pound for the tomatoes they pick.

Denise Wilson, a Burger King spokeswoman, defended the letter and said it did not have anything to do with the workers’ pay issue.

“We buy from many regions and make plans for a variety of reasons,” she said. “We’re asking our suppliers for contingency plans, in case of bad weather or freezes, which happened this January.”

Others in the industry said the letter clearly stems from the Immokalee workers issue.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., which has Immokalee production, said Florida’s packers are waiting to see how the situation may be resolved.

“I would be shocked if Burger King switched from Florida tomatoes to the only viable alternative, which would be Mexican tomatoes, because of a labor dispute in Florida,” he said. “We are the most heavily regulated agricultural community in the world. If Burger King chooses to switch to tomatoes grown in Mexico, where there is nowhere near the regulation and oversight (that we have), it doesn’t speak well on how they feel about protecting their consumers.”

Spencer said the Florida tomato industry would welcome talking with Burger King officials about the issue and to see if the packers could show Burger King that it is being fed misinformation regarding the Immokalee tomato pickers.

Tomato broker Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., said the letter is confusing and provides more questions than answers.

“Florida produces some 40-odd percent of the national tomatoes grown,” he said. “If they’re going to cut off a source of supply, it might backfire unless they’re planning to stop putting tomatoes on their sandwiches at all.”

Because it’s not an immediate issue affecting next season, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland, said there hasn’t been any organized industry discussions on the issue.

“Burger King is being aggressively attacked inappropriately by (the coalition),” he said. “They’re (Burger King) doing their corporate due diligence in exploring how to deal with that.

“It’s unfortunate that Burger King is looking at that option, but they have the right to make that business decision,” Brown said. “The whole CIW campaign intended to help workers may in fact eliminate jobs in an industry that’s there to consistently employ them in a socially accountable, third-party audit practice and pays them very competitive wages.”

Regarding the handling of contracts,

It was unclear how supply shifts would affect contracts with Florida growers. Brown said there would be ample opportunity for further discussion with Burger King prior to next year.

Burger King hasn’t gone along with the coalition’s request, although other operators such as McDonald's USA, Oak Brook, Ill., and Yum! Brands Inc., Irvine, Calif., which runs Taco Bell, have agreed to pay the extra cost.

Citing potential violations of federal and state antitrust, labor and racketeering laws, Florida’s tomato packers in November declined to participate in the deals.