Barry Bedwell, California Grape & Tree Fruit League
Barry Bedwell, California Grape & Tree Fruit League

Recently I received a phone call from one of our members who had been contacted by a demand-side partner requesting that their packing and shipping company become part of the Equitable Food Initiative.

While wanting to be respectful of the retailer’s request, this shipper was clearly concerned after doing some research on EFI that such a program would have unintended consequences and in fact have a negative impact on his sustainability.

I was not familiar with this initiative so I quickly went to their website to learn more about this effort, where I found the challenges, as defined by EFI, simply stated:

1. Retailers and foodservice companies are concerned about food safety and social accountability issues in their supply chains.

2. Growers face labor shortages, audit fatigue and declining share of the food dollar to cover the costs of enhanced safety and social accountability protocols.

OK, so far so good. The aforementioned statements seem reasonable and factual. No problem thus far.

3. Farmworkers still have low wages and dangerous working conditions and are too often left out of the discussions on improving the fresh produce industry.

Uh oh. Now we have hit upon some statements that clearly seem too general and are very much debatable.

In reading further, under the heading of “Labor-Management Collaboration Makes for Better Produce,” EFI proposes three primary areas where employees can take an active role.

These include labor standards, pesticide standards and food safety standards.

Now I am beginning to understand why our member was almost on the verge of a seizure.

EFI goes on to promote a “Leadership Training Program,” which would “assist in the formation of on-farms teams to improve communication and understanding between growers and farmworkers and to continually improve on-farm production processes to meet or exceed standards for EFI certification.”

One of my first thoughts after reading this section was how does another certification process reconcile with the earlier recognition that growers face audit fatigue?

This point alone certainly seems contradictory, but when you combine that with the reality that this concept absolutely ignores the facts in regard to the existing regulatory system as it pertains to labor standards, pesticide standards and food safety, you can’t help but begin to feel that such additional requirements hoisted upon a supplier by a demand-side partner could only lead to duplication, increased costs and invariably less true sustainability.

This is particularly true in a state like California where no reasonable person would argue that growers and shippers lack regulatory oversight.

There are multiple state agencies created specifically to ensure farmworkers are protected when it comes to wages and working conditions.

California even has its own law specially designed for farmworkers, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, that was created in 1975 to protect individuals rights to any concerted activity, including wanting to be represented by a collective bargaining agreement.

When it comes to the regulation of plant health materials, we not only have the federal Environmental Protection Agency actively monitoring and protecting workers, in California we have the California EPA, an Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment and the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

In fact, before a worker applies pesticides, there are more than 70 laws and regulations that a grower has to follow, many of which are specifically concerned with worker safety.

In regard to food safety, the work that has been done internally by the produce industry as well as the proposals now contained in the Food Safety Modernization Act confirm that this area has been taken very seriously and has been properly addressed.

It is difficult to see how worker involvement in this area would lead to productive improvements.

In summary, whether you are in a state like California that has such extensive regulations or not, the fact is that being in compliance with the multitude of federal and state agencies that provide oversight is the best certification to assure consumers that growers are following socially responsible and environmentally friendly practices.

I would hope that our demand-side partners will become more knowledgeable of protections currently in place for workers and thoughtfully evaluate proposals such as EFI before signing on to such initiatives.

I feel confident that if retailers express their concerns first to their supply side partners in regard to questions their consumers are asking, we can respond in a positive manner that provides real answers as well as avoids duplicative and unproductive costs.

In the long run, this is the true pathway to sustainability.

Barry Bedwell is president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League.

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