Reforms bring 'Fair Food' label to Florida-grown tomatoes

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 14, 2014 2:36 PM

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - A new "Fair Food" label to help shoppers identify tomatoes grown under ethical working conditions is expected to debut as soon as this weekend at Whole Foods Market, a result of efforts to ensure Florida farmworkers' rights to water, shade and fair wages.

The label, featuring a worker hoisting a brimming bucket, publicizes a campaign to reform an industry criticized by labor groups and prosecutors for unsafe and unfair working conditions.

A dozen major buyers, including Wal-Mart, Yum Brands, and Subway restaurants, are participating. It is not yet known when the label may be available at all outlets.

Participating buyers have agreed to purchase fresh tomatoes only from growers following higher standards. About 90 percent of tomato growers have signed on in Florida, the nation's leading producer of fresh market tomatoes.

The campaign's centerpiece is a premium of an extra penny per pound picked, paid on top of workers' hourly minimum wages. Since 2011, this has netted an extra $15 million for workers, organizers said, adding $30 to $80 or more to weekly paychecks.

The label is "potentially game-changing like few things are," said Janice Fine, an associate professor in labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Officials at the White House and the United Nations have called the program a model that could expand to other regions and crops. The campaign is profiled in the film "Food Chains," set for national release later this month.

In Florida, the program has assured safe conditions for an estimated 60,000 to 90,000 workers during tomato season, mostly in the central and southern parts of the state.

Florida fields produced $456 million in fresh market tomatoes in 2013, according to the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's a market that Florida dominates, along with California, the nation's top overall tomato producer.

Whole Foods will debut "Fair Food" signage in its produce aisle as early-season cherry and grape tomatoes from participating growers arrive at its stores in the U.S. Southeast.

With the label, consumers can start "supporting directly those companies who are willing to step up their game," said Gerardo Reyes, a staff member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which launched the Fair Food Program in 2011.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by David Adams; and Peter Galloway)