In For A Penny, In For A Pound

We sure do love tomatoes. We make tomato sauce several times a week, slice up juicy cherry and grape tomatoes to top everything from chicken breasts to veggie burgers, and in the summer, there’s little we love more than a simple salad of tomatoes, feta, and basil drizzled with a really great olive oil and some salt. Yes, tomatoes are crazy delicious, but you know what’s less pleasant? The plight of Florida’s tomato workers. Workers earn about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of hand-picked tomatoes. This results in wages far below the poverty line for most workers and, in an especially horrifying turn of events, last week a family in Immokalee, Florida, was convicted of enslaving a group of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants and forcing them to pick tomatoes without reasonable compensation. Clearly, this is a bad scene.

But wait! There’s more! In 2005, the tomato pickers received their first big raise since the 70s when Yum Brands (owners of Taco Bell and other chains) agreed to pay a penny more for each pound of tomatoes picked. In April 2006, McDonald’s agreed to do the same. Burger King, however, has been steadfastly refusing to pay the extra penny, despite the fact that most estimate such a move would cost the company less than $300,000 per year (in 2007, Burger King reported $2.23 billion in revenue). The company has now released internal documents indicating that they might start searching for a new (and presumably cheaper) source of tomatoes.

Emboldened by Burger King’s refusal to pony up the extra pennies, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange now wants to undo the deals with Yum Brands and McDonald’s and has threatened to fine any grower who accepts extra money for migrant workers’ wages $100,000. The Exchange’s website explains their reasoning: “Due to legal concerns over federal and state laws relating to antitrust, labor and racketeering, we [the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange] strongly urge our members not to participate in any labor deal that requires tomato companies to adhere to terms and conditions for its employees set by unaffiliated organizations.” The site gives no explanation as to why paying workers more might lead to a possible antitrust or racketeering suit.

Last week, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser and our second favorite senator, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders took a trip to Immokalee and were highly troubled by the conditions they found. Sanders released two letters. The first, to Reggie Brown, the executive vice-president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, calls for an end to the group’s opposition to the penny-per-pound initiative. The second is addressed to John W. Chidsey, CEO of Burger King, and asks the company to reconsider their position on increasing wages for the Florida tomato pickers. Both letters are signed by Senators Sanders, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown. Thus far, there have been no responses.

If you’re concerned about the situation in Immokalee, we recommend not eating at Burger King until matters are resolved. Beyond that, call your regular grocery store and ask where the tomatoes come from, or, better yet, buy them directly from a farm (challenging, but possible, even at this time of year). You can also write your elected officials and urge them to put pressure on the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

What do you think? Does this news make you more likely to choose McDonald’s over Burger King?

Penny Foolish [New York Times]
Burger King May Pass on Florida Tomatoes [Florida Today]
Coalition of Immokalee Workers [Official Site]
Florida Tomato Growers Exchange [Official Site]
The Harvest of Shame [Bernie Sanders]

In For A Penny, In For A Pound