Should food retailers permit themselves just a little schadenfreude as they watch the tempest swirling around apparel retailers?
And quite a tempest it is: the apparel industry has a mammoth problem with manufacturing conditions. This was illustrated far too well with the sudden death of over a thousand exploited workers in Bangladesh when a factory building collapsed.
Food retailers may think they can rest easy because they have no such problem. Well, not so fast. Food retailers are in the business of selling product that has its own production issues, plus more.
Now, it may not be possible to defend apparel-manufacturing conditions, but at least T-shirts have never caused disease or death to their end users. Conversely, food retailers sell products that have the potential of causing disease and death to their customers, which is happening with alarming frequency. What’s worse, food-production processes are far from immune to situations that cause harm and fatalities among workers.
As Robin Lewis pointed out in a stinging editorial, the exploitation and death visited upon apparel workers won’t come to a halt until retailers make that happen. There’s no need to look toward ill-functioning governments, NGOs or any other collective effort to make a difference. Retailers alone can force change because they hold the purse strings.
Food retailers should take a closer look at their own responsibilities when it comes to the process of growing and distributing agriculture products–the “farm-to-fork” chain. We’re not talking about a dramatic factory building collapse, but retailers do have responsibilities to help protect workers and ensure that the food they sell is not going to kill their customers.
When it comes to consumer harm, nearly half of all food-borne illnesses can be attributed to fresh produce, followed by poultry and dairy. Food-borne illness and death to consumers is often the result of poor standards and procedures maintained by farmers and lax safety measures among food-production workers.
Unlike apparel production that was exported entirely from US shores to other countries in pursuit of low labor costs, agriculture production is largely domestic. Ironically, the agriculture industry depends on low-cost imported workers to grow and harvest food. The fact that these agriculture workers are undocumented has created special new challenges for the industry.
Agriculture is a huge business employing at least 1.2 million workers, possibly more than 2 million. Agriculture production is somewhat dangerous work. Many workers–probably well into the thousands–are injured by exposure to pesticides, which is thought to be the leading cause of injury. Injuries are also caused by handling shipping crates, exposure to branches and vines, ground contact, vehicle accidents and other hazards. Beyond injuries, by some estimates, several hundred agriculture workers per year die on the job.
Because the workforce is seasonal, mobile and undocumented, estimates of the number of injuries and morbidity are unreliable, but some industry observers believe that more agriculture workers die on the job than do workers in any other domestic industry. The number of injured also ranks high among all industries.
Apart from the hazards agriculture workers face, consumers can also be put in harm’s way. Pathogens creep into fresh product in a number of ways. The most common is the use of contaminated water used to wash and cool newly harvested product in the field. Another is the use of manure as fertilizer. Sprouts, particularly alfalfa sprouts, are especially vulnerable.
To add to this, consumers are also food contaminators because of poor and widespread at-home storage, handling and preparation practices.
How serious is the problem of food-borne illness? About one-in-six Americans fall ill each year because of food contamination. Most shake off symptoms in two or three days. Vulnerable populations–those that are otherwise ill, very young or very elderly–often die of it.
Vanishing Workers and Shortages
Another issue that puts agriculture production at risk is the nettlesome matter of immigrant labor. The use of undocumented workers to harvest crops is a long-standing practice, but one that’s now under increased political debate.
Many state governments–sometimes driven by the hysteria and xenophobia of their residents–have instituted regulations intended to make immigrants feel unwelcome, or worse. There are unintended consequences to this approach. Throughout the Southeast and the Southwest, a hodgepodge of hyper-enforced regulations has prompted the exodus of immigrant labor from certain areas, making it nearly impossible for some crops to be harvested.
It’s not difficult to foresee the time when this problem, if left unresolved, will result in the removal of much agricultural production from America in favor of Mexico, South America and elsewhere. One simple solution would be to issue guest-worker visas to seasonal workers. Do our legislators have this in them?
So how can supermarkets help solve these problems? In terms of food safety, retailers can insist that produce reaching their loading docks is grown, processed and distributed with higher safety standards. This is far easier said than done because it implies that produce will become more costly. Which chain will take this step–knowing that its industry peers may not–resulting in its own uncompetitive prices?
Costco is a good role model. A recent news feature in The New York Times reported one grower in California has pledged to make its workers responsible for produce purity, and intends to reward them with higher pay to do so. Costco has agreed to sell the produce, even at higher price points.
Higher prices require managing customer expectations. This means consumers will have to be informed about why they’re being asked to pay slightly more for produce. A reasonable parallel communications plan would be to inform them about the need to practice food-safety procedures at home.
Another helpful development is FoodLink, a private market-place for produce acquisition, increasingly used by major retailers. FoodLink promotes better communication among business segments, such as growers, wholesalers and retailers. It also ensures traceability of produce, which is helpful if contaminated produce enters the distribution chain.
The role of supermarkets in helping solve agriculture’s dependence on undocumented workers rests in the political arena. They’re going to have to lobby for solutions, such as guest-worker programs and eventual citizenship for committed immigrants. The National Grocers Association has taken such positions and intends to lobby for them.
But there is a bigger problem here. The supermarket industry is not accustomed to taking much responsibility for most of what happens outside the four walls of the store. Because the industry is so competitive and increasingly consolidated, there is little incentive for chief executives of retailing companies to devote time or capital to seeking industry-wide solutions.
Yet, ownership of problems such as food safety and immigrant labor has to be made accountable somewhere along the food distribution chain. There is no better place for that to happen than at the final link in the chain–retailers.
If growers, shippers and packers become convinced that retailers will no longer accept dubious food-safety performance, or high levels of illness and morbidity among workers, change will quickly follow.
Is this possible, let along likely? Maybe not, but let’s see what happens as Costco takes the first step toward solving some of these problems. If Costco’s bid to improve food safety goes well, and consumers are willing to pay the cost of safer products, there’s room for optimism.