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EMPALME, SONORA – Mexico’s produce-export industry has been ripped in a four-part series that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7-14.

If there is any positive for Mexico’s fresh produce industry in the piece, the point is made that food-safety efforts are strong. But it is also indicated that growers care about safe food more than the well-being of their employees.

Richard Marosi, author of the series, provides few, if any, positive examples of social responsibility efforts by Mexican growers. The series was supported with video and photography work by Don Bartletti. One video segment, which is now blurred, features a grower’s voice describing his positive efforts. The industry reported that the original video running during the audio showed graphically disturbing views of dirty workers. There is a mention of FairTrade practices within the story but the mention is tangential to serious commitment by an increasing number of growers.

The four-part series addresses negative situations involving labor camps, child labor and high prices at employee provision stores. Part three, which published Dec. 10, focuses on “brutal conditions at Bioparques, one of Mexico's biggest tomato exporters, which was a Wal-Mart supplier.” The subhead for this section reads: “Scorpions and bedbugs. Constant hunger. No pay for months. Finally, a bold escape leads to a government raid, exposing deplorable conditions. But justice proves elusive.”

Walmart and other American retailers were contacted by the LA Times and questioned about their knowledge of social responsibility practices by Mexican growers.

The long exposé also published an internal letter from the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas to its membership, providing public relations advice on how to deal with the LA Times reporter.

Lance Jungmeyer, president of the FPAA, told The Produce News that the LA Times piece was not representative: “I feel it portrays only the negative.”

Jungmeyer said the piece shows elements “that are not acceptable. The vast majority of the produce being exported to the U.S. comes from farms with very good standards and the LA Times really does not show both sides of the story.”

He added that the Mexican industry is placing a “very positive” emphasis on social responsibility. Growers are providing good healthcare and housing for workers. There are scholarship programs for some workers’ students and workers are being taught life skills as part of the social responsibility programs.

Jungmeyer continued that FPAA has been “proactive in the realm of accountability and transparency. Social responsibility is one of our primary areas of focus.” Food safety was an initial focus and now social responsibility has moved to the forefront.

“We have been having seminars for growers and showing what the best companies are doing — to be emulated — and we are engaging more with (other) ag associations directly. We are providing assistance on educational seminars.” FPAA is organizing tours of model work camps, showing best practices and providing guidance documents.

Jungmeyer said FPAA is participating in the creation of a new organization, the International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance, which will engage many agricultural associations to focus on these issues. This group is to be “formalized in coming weeks.”

In the second week of December, The Produce News was traveling in Mexico with Matt Mandel, the chairman of FPAA, as the LA Times feature unfolded.

Mandel said Dec. 11 that the article didn’t depict his experience with Mexico in general. When not volunteering his time for FPAA, Mandel is the vice president of sales and marketing for SunFed Produce LLC, based in Rio Rico, AZ.

Mandel noted that an Empalme, Sonora, grower, Lorenzo Bay, who met with The Produce News on Dec. 10, contracts directly with his workers. Thus, his firm, Agricola Bay Hermanos, keeps its workers removed from the labor contractors that are criticized in the LA Times article.

The same workers, by and large, work for Agricola Bay Hermanos for 11 or 12 months a year. They are off in the heat of the summer when it is too hot to grow crops in Empalme.

Mandel noted that if nothing else, worker well-being is important “in the strict business perspective” because there is increasing competition for workers. “If you don’t treat them right, they probably won’t come back.”

Beyond that, decency is critically important, Mandel noted. “They are people with feelings like you and me. From the ethical and moral side, you should be taking care of your people. People in the Mexican produce industry understand that. Very much so.” The ugly situations reported by the LA Times “are deplorable. That is entirely unacceptable.”

Mandel said the FPAA’s purpose is to “disseminate information and improve the industry as a whole.” The association holds educational sessions on best practices in an effort “to do anything we can do to raise the bar. We really represent the Mexican produce industry. Our association, more than any other, is the authority on what goes on with Mexican agriculture. This is one of those situations that you can’t necessarily speak to because there are differences from company to company. We can provide guidance to companies and show them how to improve.”

FPAA “is proactive,” Mandel said, and was working to raise the level of social responsibility long before the LA Times article appeared. “We encourage every company to look at their own practices and verify what should be done is actually done. If you don’t verify, what good is it?”

Mandel noted if the Mexican industry has any mistreatment of workers “we 110 percent condemn that.”

There have been numerous produce growers and shippers in the news lately for reasons they would rather not be: recalls, foodborne illness outbreaks and, in one notable case, even prison terms for company principals.

“Unfortunately, the court of public opinion renders its verdict within 24 hours after the first reporter calls or the first TV camera goes on,” said Cheryl Miller, chief executive officer of Tampa, FL-based At The Table Public Relations. “How you handle the first 24 hours of a crisis can make all the difference.”

The most critical factor is having a public relations crisis communications plan in place ahead of any incident, added the company’s Bill Barlow.

“Just like the military has guns they hope they never have to fire and you have Band-Aids in your medicine chest you hope you’ll never need, you’ve got to be ready for things you can’t predict are going to happen,” Barlow said. “How you get through a crisis is can be as simple as the difference between being proactive or reactive.”

A proactive approach has a plan in place for dealing with any crisis. A reactive approach comes across to the public and media as a deer-in-the-headlights moment.

“When most people are reactive they’re huddling internally trying to sort out what to do. Meanwhile the media’s contacting them, reporters are hitting deadlines, they’re not getting answers, they’re speculating. Now the first round of coverage is speculative then it gets worse and worse and worse,” Barlow said. “If you’re proactive you meet them at the curb — you come out, you’ve got a designated spokesperson, you’ve got some stock answers and hopefully some media training and are ready to deal with the situation because you had a crisis plan in place which allows you to meet the situation head on and look like you have it under control.”

Determining how prepared a company is for a crisis is a fairly simple process. ATTPR has a five-question checklist that makes the process painless:

Do you have a written crisis plan in place now?

Do you have selected spokespersons and are they media trained?

Do you have your initial crisis team contact list developed and does everyone in your company know and understand their responsibilities during a crisis?

Do you know what to say or how to handle queries when news media contact you about your crisis?

Do you have resources in place should a crisis exceed your capabilities or outside resources that can give you objective counsel?

“If you don’t know or can’t answer or you’re not sure, it’s time to pick up the phone and call a professional,” Miller said.

“A lot of people think they don’t need a crisis plan but that’s the same as the military saying, ‘We’re not going to buy guns until someone shoots at us,’ “ Barlow said.

Whether a company handles crisis public relations communications in-house or relies on outside professionals, an independent — and unbiased —agency can help.

“We have a toolkit that helps companies make sure they have at least gone through the initial steps of preparation so when they do have a crisis they can move quickly,” Miller said. “We have out-of-the-box and custom solutions for any situation.”

Better yet, ATTPR and other professionals often offer no-cost evaluations of companies’ current crisis PR preparation plans.

“First of all you have to have an objective view of the situation,” Barlow said. “That’s something every company thinks they’re capable of but in reality — and especially under pressure — that’s usually not obtainable. Second you have to balance that plan with your corporate agenda. Third, it’s got to make reasonable sense for any situation. If you can balance those three things you can establish a good plan. But generally the objective opinion does not come from within.”

Added Miller, “In 2013, there’s no excuse to be hanging in the breeze when it comes to crisis preparation.”

SIGHTINGS

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