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Castellini increases presence in Southeast

The Castellini Group of Cos., a leading distributor of fresh produce based in Cincinnati, announced plans to construct a vegetable processing and distribution center in Conley, GA.

The location in Georgia strengthens Castellini's presence in the Southeast, enabling it to reach 80 percent of the U.S. market within a single day by truck.

"Our expansion in the Southeast will allow us to better serve current customers and continue our growth strategy by opening up new markets," Bill Schuler, president and chief executive officer of Castellini, said in a press release. "By working together with the state of Georgia and Clayton County, we're able to further grow our business while bringing much-needed jobs and economic growth to the region. We appreciate all the assistance they've provided to help make this initiative a reality."

Castellini offers a full line of fresh produce and value-added services, which include a complete line of organic produce, fresh-cut processing, tomato repacking and transportation, for its retail, foodservice and wholesale customers.

Lipman challenges Eva Longoria’s film claiming abysmal working conditions for farm labor

Longoria-3A new documentary film co-produced and hosted by actress Eva Longoria and “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser claims to expose the underbelly of the farm labor system in the United States and says pressure from retailers and fast food restaurants contributes substantially to “subhuman” working conditions.

The film focuses on the controversial Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization that has campaigned over the last decade-plus to improve working conditions for Florida tomato workers.Longoria2Eva Longoria, host and co-producer of ‘Food Chains’

The film has sparked outrage among Florida tomato growers, almost all of which have cooperated with the CIW over the past few years to increase wages and create better working conditions for mostly immigrant workers, some of whom are undocumented.

“Food Chains” was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and opened in limited theaters Nov. 21.

According to the film's website, “‘Food Chains’ reveals the human cost in our food supply and the complicity of large buyers of produce like fast food and supermarkets. Fast food is big, but supermarkets are bigger — earning $4 trillion globally. They have tremendous power over the agricultural system. Over the past three decades they have drained revenue from their supply chain leaving farmworkers in poverty and forced to work under subhuman conditions. Yet many take no responsibility for this.”

The website states that “farmworkers, the foundation of our fresh food industry, are routinely abused and robbed of wages. In extreme cases they can be beaten, sexually harassed or even enslaved — all within the borders of the United States.”

Contacted for comment, most in the Florida tomato industry — including the Florida Tomato Committee — declined. But Immokalee-based Lipman has confronted “Food Chains” head-on.

“We agree that agricultural labor in general and tomato harvesting in particular is a difficult job and we respect the hard work that our employees do," John Amaya, chief development officer for Immokalee-based Lipman, told The Produce News.Longoria-3Lipman Chief Development Officer John Amaya "While we are proud of our record in the industry and we are committed to continuous improvement, we know that there is much work still to do and remain focused on treating our people with respect and being an employer of choice…so that we can retain the best labor and be able to afford offering them a very competitive compensation package."

Kent Shoemaker, chief executive officer of Lipman, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Miami Herald: “As CEO of the nation’s largest open-field tomato grower…while I applaud Ms. Longoria for her advocacy and passion, she continues to make inaccurate statements that threaten to reverse positive momentum.”

Shoemaker countered many of the film’s claims in the same letter:

“There has not been a single reported case of a Florida tomato farmer beating or raping a farm worker,” he wrote. “Stating that people earn ‘$40 a day for 4,000 pounds’ of harvest is incorrect. Our workers are paid at least minimum wage, with a vast majority making far more than that. Last year alone, we awarded over $1 million in season-end bonuses to those who harvest our crop. We pay $.55/bucket, plus a $.10/bucket bonus. That is more than $.02/pound, which is more than double what Ms. Longoria continues to state. Our average farmworker made $12.83/hour last year and that is before factoring free housing and transportation.

“While it is true that farmworkers in this country have faced workplace abuse for generations, there is a new era in Florida. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement,” he said.

Cooperative efforts with the CIW are not the only driving factor improving conditions for farm laborers. Florida tomato growers compete for an ever-dwindling labor force, which has also had a positive effect on workers in the field.

“Our partnership with the CIW has provided us with an additional tool to increase communication with our workers and as such, support the continual improvement that you have seen in the industry,” Amaya said. “We have a commitment to be … a farming company that is people-focused. Our strategy has always been to treat our employees with respect and to be a leader in the industry. Farm labor is tough work and there is a shrinking supply of people who we will continue to compete for.”

Taking better care of workers is clearly the humane thing to do, but it is also good business.

“We do what we do because it is good business, not to impress anyone.” Amaya said. “This is the way the Lipman family has operated for generations. We believe that being a responsible employer, treating people with respect and being a sustainable company that offers opportunities for long term employment via our scale and treatment of workers will help us remain competitive in a rapidly revolving environment. We see being an employer of choice as a competitive advantage. We believe that being a responsible employer and a responsible leader in the industry are not mutually exclusive.”

Cucumbers identified as likely cause of E. coli outbreak at Jimmy John’s

Colorado officials say one lot of cucumbers traced to a farm in Mexico is likely the cause of an E. coli outbreak of patrons who ate at three Jimmy John’s locations in the Denver metropolitan area in 2013.

The sandwich chain is being blamed for the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak during October 2013 that involved at least nine people. All nine patrons recalled eating cucumbers, and disease investigators suspected tomatoes and lettuce but found there was no common lot shipped to all three restaurants.

“To our knowledge, this is the first E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with cucumbers reported in the United States,” the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment said in a Dec. 4 report on the outbreak. “Public health and food-safety officials should be aware that cucumbers may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, which could cause sporadic E. coli O157:H7 infections as well as outbreaks.”

Colorado health authorities inspected Jimmy John’s and the produce supplier to the three fast-food restaurants, Denver-based Colo-Pac Produce Inc. But food and environmental samples tested negative for the deadly bacteria. “Given that cucumbers are a perishable food item, we were unable to recover any cucumbers from the implicated lot for testing,” CDPHE said. It is still unknown at what point the cucumbers may have become contaminated.

Records from Colo-Pac Produce Inc. showed one lot of 84 cucumbers received from GR Produce Inc. in McAllen, TX, and shipped to Colo-Pac on Sept. 26, 2013. The suspected cucumbers were only distributed to the sandwich chain.

As part of the investigation, health authorities said they considered collecting samples from employees of the sandwich chain and Colo-Pac produce to look for food handler illnesses, but “decided not to do this given the lack of illness reported in food handlers, the amount of public health resources needed to collect and test stool from over 100 staff members from the four entities, and the evidence that the source of the outbreak was likely a contaminated food served at multiple Jimmy John’s locations.”

Bill Marler, founder of Seattle-based MarlerClark, pointed out that Jimmy John’s has been linked to past outbreaks, at least five in recent years caused by tainted sprouts or lettuce.

Last year, FDA added two Mexican companies to an import alert after 84 people in 18 states were sickened by Salmonella-contaminated cucumbers.

Hass Avocado Board elects new board officers

The Hass Avocado Board recently elected a new slate of officers for the next year. James Johnson, producer, was chosen as chairman of the board; Bob Schaar, producer, will be vice-chairman; Mike Parr, importer, will be secretary; and Chris Henry, importer, will be treasurer.hablog

The following new directors were also seated at the annual meeting: Thomas A. Escalante, producer; Laurie Luschei, producer; and David Fausset, importer. Two directors were reappointed: Bob Schaar, producer, and Chris Henry, importer. The directors were elected by Hass avocado importers and producers and appointed to the board by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
 
The following new alternates were also seated: Michael Adams, producer; Linda Mullins, producer; Lyle Kafader, producer; Custodio Aguilar, producer; Jim Swoboda, producer; Jorge Hernandez, importer; and Gahl Crane, importer. They were also elected by importers and producers and appointed by the USDA.
 
“We look forward to another immensely productive year,” Emiliano Escobedo, HAB’s executive director, said in a press release. “We work hard to increase the collaboration between growers, importers and handlers to create a successful market place.”
 
HAB also expressed gratitude toward the following outgoing board members, whose terms as members of the board ended in 2014, for their dedication and service to the avocado industry: Ed Embly, producer; Casimir Wytaniec, producer; Isabel Freeland, importer; and Will Carleton, producer.

Mexico launches anti-dumping probe on U.S. apples

WASHINGTON — Mexico's Economy Secretariat has launched an anti-dumping investigation on U.S. apples in response to a petition filed by fruit growers alleging U.S. apples entered the Mexican market at below fair market rate, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA's notice says Mexico initiated the antidumping duty investigation on Dec. 4 on U.S. fresh apples shipped from January to December 2013.

The latest action is in response to a petition filed by a regional producer association, the Unión Agrícola Regional de Fruticultores del Estado de Chihuahua, or UNIFRUT. The state of Chihuahua is the largest producer of apples in Mexico.

Interested parties have until Jan. 16, 2015 to submit responses or arguments for consideration by Economía's Unidad de Prácticas Comerciales Internacionales.

In the meantime, U.S. apple exports are expected to increase this year by 4 percent to 875,000 tons, primarily on rising shipments to Mexico, said a USDA report released this month on the world apple market.

However, USDA said Mexico's apple production is forecast to drop 22 percent to 670,000 tons, while imports are expected to increase 15 percent to 260,000 tons.