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Mexican industry ripped by unbalanced LA Times series

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.cafeteria-Bay-HermanosA work camp at Agricola Bay Hermanos, near Empalme, Sonora. The building in the foreground is a cafeteria that serves three meals a day to Agricola Bay Hermanos workers. Beyond the cafeteria are soccer fields for workers. To the right are dorms for the workers. Out of sight is a store that serves as a mini-mart with prices are below what would be paid in Empalme. 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.

dining-San-RafaelThis is the clean dining hall for farm workers at Agroproductos San Rafael, S.A. de C.V., located near Empalme, Sonora. The photo was shot Dec. 11.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.

Fundacion-Alta-healthThis is a free health clinic run by Fundacion Alta at the Divine Flavor vineyard north of Hermosillo. The Produce News toured this FairTrade-certified facility on May 5. In addition to other benefits, the workers also enjoy access to a dentist, who enjoys modern equipment within the secure work camp. “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. He noted that The Produce News “saw (clean) living quarters and where the workers eat three square meals a day.”

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-EmpalmeMatt Mandel, chairman of FPAA, stands before a winter vegetable field in Empalme, Sonora, while holding yellow squash that has already been harvested at the farm, Agricola Bay Hermanos.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.”

Ruby Fresh pomegranate snack cups welcome addition to school lunch programs

Following introduction at this year’s PMA Fresh Summit Expo in Anaheim, CA, several school districts have added Ruby Fresh's two-ounce pomegranate aril snack cups to their lunch menus this fall. With recent initiatives to provide healthy snack alternatives at schools throughout the country, Ruby Fresh has developed a pomegranate aril snack cup for school lunch programs.rubyfresh

"The two-ounce cups have been so well-received by schools, we were very excited for the opportunity to share them with New York Produce Show attendees as well,” David Anthony, who handles sales for Ruby Fresh, said in a press release.

Ruby Fresh’s two-ounce pomegranate snack cups are individually sealed and just the right size for a healthy, energy-packed snack for kids of all ages. Low calorie (40 calories), rich in vitamin C and consisting of all natural ingredients, several leading suppliers to school lunch programs across the nation have teamed up with Ruby Fresh in this product roll out.

“We are very excited to have this convenient and healthy option for our students," one school superintendent in Utah said.

Offering 18 days of shelf life and packed in a foodservice-grade sealed carton, each box holds 38 individually sealed two-ounce cups. Full pallets of 180 cartons offer a lower shipping cost and keep pomegranate arils within the strict budget guidelines under which schools operate.

Dragonberry celebrates 10 years of excellence

Dragonberry Produce celebrated its 10th anniversary with style and elegance at the River Place Hotel in Portland, OR, Dec. 6. “The intimate event was a small gathering of favorite friends, family, growers, customers and vendors,” Founder Amy Nguyen told The Produce News. “I took this opportunity to express our sincere appreciation for the successful partnerships we have built in the last 10 years. These people believed in Dragonberry and invested in us. They have supported us and allowed us to market products and blossom at our own rate.”DragonberryAnniversaryDragonberry Produce founder Amy Nguyen (right) with Jackie Caplan Wiggins, COO of Frieda's Specialty Produce, and Frieda Caplan, founder of Frieda's. (Photo courtesy of Dragonberry Produce)

Frieda Caplan, founder of Frieda's Specialty Produce, was the guest of honor at the event. “She was such an inspiration to me when I first entered the produce industry,” Nguyen said. “Her success story and achievements inspired me and infused my admiration for her from the first time meeting her 10 years ago. Her passions, love and excitement for what she does is so contigious that I can feel her energy even at her age of 91. Everyone was so excited to come and meet her, as she was the first lady of the produce industry.”

The boutique-style specialty produce distributor first opened its doors in Clackamas, OR, eventually moving to its state-of-the-art facility in Canby, OR, in 2013.

The Canby facility is LEED-certified Silver by the U.S. Green Building Council, the first of its kind for produce distribution in Oregon. “We have built a strong company branding that is unique,” Nguyen said. “We became a knowledgeable company that exports, imports and distributes through our family of partnerships. We learned how to work with different government agencies to establish tolerances laws. We learned a lot in the last 10 years and will continue to become a better learner. I believe when you are a good learner, you become a strong achiever.”

As to the future, Ngyuen said, “I believe success is not a destination, but a continuous journey we travel together with all our partnerships. Dragonberry's motto is to always have continuous improvement. I want to lead my company to become more refined and establish a culture of premium first-class quality that surpasses the ordinary.”

Market Basket acquisition complete

Years of reported infighting came to a head June 23, when Market Basket's board of directors fired Arthur T. Demoulas, president and chief executive officer. Weeks of employee and customer protests brought him back into the fold, and now he has completed his acquisition of the company.

Demoulas and his family announced that as of 1 p.m. Dec. 12, they have completed the purchase of the 50.5 percent of the Demoulas Supermarkets Inc. that they did not previously own, and now have 100 percent ownership of the Market Basket grocery store chain.

Newly opened Market Basket locations in Revere, Littleton and Waltham, MA, over the last 60 days bring the chain's total tally to 73 stores.

Since the team led by Demoulas returned to Market Basket on Aug. 28, there have been significant changes: sales and customer counts have been higher than last year; three new stores opened in the past six weeks; 1,300 new jobs have been created; and an employee bonus of $49 million was shared this week with associates, including full and part-time Associates.

“Arthur T. Demoulas and the Market Basket team remain fervently dedicated to our customers and our More For Your Dollar commitment to them,” David McLean, Market Basket operations manager, said in a press release.  “We eagerly embark on this new chapter for the company, and expect steady growth in both the near and long term.  The world witnessed just how incredible our customers and associates are and the rock solid commitment we have to our ‘people first’ culture.”

Jury convicts brothers in crop insurance case

Aaron and Derek Johnson, who farm potatoes near Grand Forks, ND, will be sentenced in federal court on March 9 following their conviction on felony counts of conspiracy and making false statements to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency and law enforcement officials. A unanimous jury returned the guilty verdict in Fargo, ND, Dec. 11 after five hours of deliberation.

Tried as individuals, each brother could face up to 20 years prison time.

Aaron Johnson, age 50, and Derek Johnson, age 47, were accused of taking advantage of the federal government's crop insurance program. At the time charges were filed, it was alleged that the brothers purposefully damaged their potato crops from 2002 to 2010. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the damage included the application of Rid-X to potatoes, use of warehouse heaters to hasten product deterioration, and addition of spoiled and frozen potatoes to stored product.

The brothers denied all charges in the case. In addition to the above charges, Aaron Johnson was also convicted of lying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

The jury reached its verdict after eight days of testimony. Although more than 20 people testified during the proceeding, the government's key witness was Leo Borgen, who worked at the farm. Borgen is a convicted felon, currently serving time in Jamestown, ND, for an unrelated crime. He testified that he had firsthand knowledge of the brothers' activities.

The federal crop insurance program helps farmers recover from natural disasters. Prosecutors said the brothers received payments of approximately $2 million for damaged crops. During the trial, other area potato farmers testified about the condition of their own crops during the time frame in question.