East Coast Growers and Packers, Mulberry, Fla., is breaking ranks with much of the Florida tomato industry by entering into a “penny per pound” agreement with Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

Florida tomato company, Chipotle enter 'penny a pound' agreement

Although foodservice operators and retailers — including McDonald’s and Whole Foods — have agreed to paying a penny more for each pound of tomatoes picked, East Coast is the first major grower to enter into an agreement with its field workers. The Sept. 10 announcement came after months of discussions with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which for years has campaigned for the penny for pound program.

The Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and Florida Tomato Exchange has resisted pressure from the union group, warning that such agreement could violate federal and state antitrust, labor and racketeering laws.

Florida tomato growers bowed out of similar deals with fast-food giants McDonald’s and Yum! Brands back in November 2007.

Reggie Brown, manager of the tomato committee and executive vice president of the tomato exchange, said he couldn’t speculate on how East Coast’s agreement may change the deal because he said he hasn’t read any of the agreement’s specifics.

“We have not seen nor have been party to any kind of arrangement anyone may have made with CIW,” he said. “Those people making arrangements with CIW are making business decisions they’re free to do.”

East Coast, which recently resigned from the exchange, agrees to pay its workers who pick tomatoes for Chipotle 82 cents for each 32-pound bucket, up from 50 cents, according to a Chipotle news release.

“We’re a family-owned business,” said Batista Madonia Jr., East Coast vice president and sales manager. “Our employees are our partners; they’re a critical part of our business. Trying to improve their lives is right for our business.

“Sometimes, doing what’s right isn’t what’s popular,” Madonia said. “We’re doing what we think is right.”

CIW president Gerardo Reyes called East Coast’s decision a victory for the workers.

“We are extremely pleased that East Coast has shown the courage and the vision to seize on this tremendous opportunity and by so doing help led the Florida tomato industry toward a fairer, more sustainable future,” Reyes said in a release. “There is still much work to be done, but at long last, we are working together, and when we work together … we can forge a relationship that will benefit all of us.”

Other major companies — McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods — had signed on to the CIW’s fair food agreements, but the money is in escrow because no suppliers were on board before the East Coast decision.

East Coast is not the first grower to enter into such an agreement — Whole Foods organic suppliers Alderman Farms Sales Corp., Boynton Beach, Fla., and Lady Moon Farms Inc., Chambersbury, Pa., did this summer — but it’s the first major shipper to do so.

Madonia said he has the mechanism in place to get the money to his workers.

“I don’t believe our core business will change much,” he said. “And, I expect to be hearing from (some other major buyers) in the next couple days.”