Rather than waiting for the government to take action, consumer advocates have formed a unique coalition with retailers, farmers, suppliers and farm workers to promote food safety as well as to improve working conditions in the produce industry. The recent outbreak of cyclospore, a parasite-borne food poisoning, traced to salad greens is the most recent situation highlighting the importance of interactive cooperation needed from planting to arrival on your table.
“It’s an interesting concept,” said Peter Driscoll, EFI’s project director. “How do you get farm workers to be part of the solution to challenges in the produce industry, particularly around food safety, pesticide use, worker safety and wages?”
While the initiative has been in the works about 5 years, the pilot project started in California just last year. The first crops harvested in this pilot – strawberries – have been sold at some Costco stores under the brand name “Limited Edition.”
“I think the Equitable Food Initiative is spectacular,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety lawsuits. “Working with the people who are producing our food is one piece of the puzzle that not many businesses do. And that’s the great thing about it.”
California’s Andrew and Williamson (A&W), a major producer of berries, tomatoes and cucumbers, are currently the lone supplier of the Limited Edition strawberries. A&W is the first grower to participate in the EFI program.
A&W had a core team of about a dozen workers representing pickers, sprayers, drivers, supervisors and farm management that received 40 hours of training through the Equitable Food Initiative. During that time, the core team was taught about proper hygiene and sanitation, clean water, and proper use of pesticides. Once their training was complete, these team leaders were responsible for passing this information on to their peers.
Ernie Farley, a partner at A&W, emphasized the program will only be successful if all parties understand the rules and goals: food safety, better working conditions, respecting workers and empowering them to challenge improper practices of procedures.
“These are ground-breaking, culture-changing things that we’re talking about. No farmer or farm worker wants to harvest any food that isn’t healthy, but the current system generally rewards speed and volume,” Farley told Herb Weisbaum, a contributor to NBC News.
With EFI, farm workers are trained to report any safety issues in the field, aptly referred to as “red button moments”, to their supervisors. Workers have been reassured they will not be negatively impacted for coming forth.
“The degree to which farm workers can be trained and supported to identify risks to food safety will directly benefit consumers,” said Erik Nicholson, a vice-president with the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) and EFI co-chair. The UFW is one of the founding members of the initiative.
Nicholson compared a typical farm scene before and after EFI. Prior to the initiative, the crew harvesting berries may have noticed deer droppings. Because they were paid by the amount they picked, it is doubtful anyone would have left the field to notify a supervisor. Besides that, a worker leaving the fields was highly frowned upon.
Now, as EFI workers, they are trained to call the situation to the attention of a supervisor. All berries picked in that area would be destroyed and the area roped off until the deer droppings were eliminated and contamination risks eradicated.
Will this important safety initiative cost consumers more for their produce? Not at Costco. Even though Costco pays A&W premium prices for those Limited Edition strawberries (providing a bonus for everyone on the farm), the cost is not passed on to Costco shoppers because the company saves money over the long haul.
How could that be possible if Costco is paying more for the strawberries? As it turns out, EFI results in the percentage of A&W berries that are damaged and must be destroyed is much less than normal. End result – the reduced waste almost equals the extra cost, keeping members from paying increased prices for those Limited Edition strawberries.
Jeff Lyons, Costco’s senior vice president for fresh foods, is very excited about EFI. “This is a good business decision. Food safety is critical to our members.”
A&W’s Farley states, “Change takes brave people to step forward. It’s taken a lot of guts for Costco to step up and talk about this.
On first glance, EFI is a no-brainer and growers and processors should be scrambling to see which ones will be first to receive the next wave of training. Not so, however. It seems that some do not share Costco’s enthusiasm, saying current government regulations are doing a good job.
On the negative side, Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, is concerned about “unintended consequences” by having “too many chefs in the kitchen.” In other words, he’s none too happy about the prospect of giving every worker in the field the opportunity to question the operation.
Bedwell also feels EFI could slow production and lead to higher costs. He’s also not a proponent for voluntary initiatives.
According to him, “There’s already tremendous regulatory oversight on the farms in California and other states. If it’s deficient, let’s talk about that and see how we can make it better.”
From the positive side, Carolyn Smith DeWaal, a food safety expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the consumer groups in the EFI coalition, feels the initiatives will make it easier for farmers to meet their social and food safety responsibilities.
“The federal government has good rules in place, but often they haven’t enforced them. We have a better chance of reaching the goal of a safe food supply through a program like this,” said Smith DeWaal.