By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

(Jan. 25) The Florida tomato industry is responding to a group of U.S. senators that has stepped into the dispute involving an Immokalee, Fla., tomato workers group and fast-food companies such as Burger King.

Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Jan. 18 wrote to Burger King Miami-based Burger King Corp. chief executive officer John Chidsey, asking the fast-food giant to pay more to Immokalee tomato pickers.

"Recent reports suggest that the per bushel piece rate that farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, are paid has not increased in the past two decades," the senators wrote. "Reports also indicate that slavery cases have been successfully prosecuted against individuals in the region's tomato industry. In addition, we have heard firsthand that living conditions of local workers are among the worst in the agriculture industry."

Go here to view the senators' letter to John Chidsey.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, denied the accusations that tomato farmers mistreat and underpay workers.

Farm payroll records show Florida tomato harvesters average $12.46 an hour, more than double the $5.85 per hour federal minimum wage and almost twice as high as Florida's $6.67 per hour minimum wage, Brown said. The senators are using misleading information; Brown said per-bushel rates vary depending on crop conditions, at 45 to 60 cents.

Go here to view the senators' letter to Reggie Brown.

Go here to view Brown's statement on Sen. Sanders' visit to Immokalee.

He said Florida's tomato industry continues to be a progressive employer, participating in the Socially Accountable Farm Employers or SAFE system, the country's only third-party audited program that certifies that fruit and vegetable grower-shippers follow fair and lawful labor practices.

"For the CIW to continue to try to present the tomato issue as if it is a slaving industry is fundamentally false and an affront to the reputation of the tomato industry," Brown said.

The coalition's plan has fast-food operators -- such as McDonald's and Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell -- agreeing to pay tomato workers an extra penny per pound. The plan could bring tomato growers many complex legal issues, including potential antitrust violations, worker representation and unionization, Brown said.

Burger King appears to be making plans to abandon Immokalee tomato purchases.

In a Dec. 18 letter, Burger King wrote to suppliers requesting they submit contingency plans for a supply disruption in case the company next winter stopped buying Immokalee tomatoes.

"We are eager to sit down with the CIW and engage in a reasonable and productive dialogue," said Burger King spokesman Keva Silversmith. "Our door is open to the CIW and to visiting members of Congress, and we hope they will come by and offer their input on ways to improve the conditions facing the tomato harvesters."

Kennedy, chairman of the senate's health, education and labor committee, announced he planned to schedule a hearing to look into the region's farm worker conditions. A Kennedy spokeswoman, Melissa Wagoner, said a hearing date had not been scheduled.

Florida is the leading winter domestic supplier of tomatoes, providing 80% of the fruit. Winter production centers in Immokalee and Homestead.