by Terrie Ellerbee/editor–Southwest
At the Viva Fresh Produce Expo in San Antonio in April, food safety expert Luis Alberto Cruz Garcia spoke about food safety initiatives in Mexico. His presentation highlighted establishing and understanding food safety regulations, as well as the similarities and differences in regulatory procedures across national borders.
But it was a conversation he had with Melinda Goodman, managing partner at Full Tilt Marketing, that was an eye-opener. She told The Shelby Report that Garcia talked about a massive shortage of agricultural labor in Mexico in the coming five to 10 years, depending on what happens with trade negotiations that now are under way.
In addition, with steel tariffs already in place, that industry likely will begin to attract more workers who will flock to those jobs instead of to the fields where fruits and vegetables are grown.
“We’re going to have a shortage. It’s going to be a trickle-down effect, and that’s going to pass on to Guatemala and Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, everywhere,” Goodman said.
On the retail side, consumers want to know about where food comes from—where it is grown, how the workers are treated—now more than ever.
“This is that moment in time, being in the right time, the right place, on the right side of history, when there is an overwhelming desire for transparency,” said LeAnne Ruzzamenti, director of communications for the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI). “Consumers are at a place where they want to know more about what’s happening behind the scenes.”
EFI can help grower-shippers create an environment of transparency to assure retailers that their products are safe, whether they come across the border from Mexico or are grown in the U.S. and harvested by migrant workers.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) undocumented immigrants comprise about half of the entire agricultural workforce in the U.S. The AFBF would like to see legal status for undocumented farm workers and a workable guest worker program.
In the meantime, agricultural companies are paying a premium for skilled labor and automating where they can. But there simply aren’t enough workers.
Grower-shippers are moving toward making these jobs more attractive for farm workers, whether they were born in this country, came to the U.S. as guest workers or even crossed illegally into the U.S. to work in the fields. The workers are not a homogenous group. There are subtle cultural nuances and workers who speak languages other than English and Spanish. Some workers have a fourth-grade education or less.
“One of the pieces that I think we bring is a recognition of this workforce—many don’t read or write. Obviously, English, Spanish, we know. We train in both languages,” said Kevin Boyle, EFI’s director of business and workforce development. “But a lot of the workforce comes from Oaxaca and speaks the Mazateco language.”
In fact, about 80 percent of all Mazateco speakers live in Oaxaca.
“We’ve got to find ways to teach. What we do is we teach a team how to teach the rest of the workforce,” Boyle said. “So, where you have a sign that says, ‘please wash your hands because of bacteria,’ people walk up and they have no idea what it says. But there are a bunch of artists among farmworkers; they create visuals.”
EFI’s goals are to ensure that food is safer, work environments are healthier and that consumers can feel good about the products they buy. It works to bring everyone to the table to create a safer, more equitable food system.
EFI certifies farms in the areas of social accountability, food safety and pest management. When the organization was forming, it brought together stakeholders from labor, farms, retailers, pest management companies and food safety professionals, who all were concerned about the number of audits that had to be conducted. Boyle said the idea is to consolidate numerous retailer audits. The key, he said, is workforce development and training.
“We put together a training program of global transferable skills around lean management, continuous improvement, conflict resolution, teamwork, communicating with supervisors and labor, and we trained 40 hours with those skills, along with social accountability, food safety and pest management,” Boyle said. “So, it’s not only the certification and the audit that we have that others have, it is that development of a continuous process all the way through from the farm to the retailer.”
Ruzzamenti said the company has certified 26 farms. When EFI shows up on a farm, it puts together a “cross-level, cross-operational leadership team” to talk about issues and share knowledge, she said. It happens first on an operational level and then is replicated throughout the supply chain.
“Often, it’s the first time that those folks have come together,” Ruzzamenti said. “What those businesses have found is that it has really led to breaking down silos. People have a shared purpose now.”
Costco and Whole Foods Market are early adopters of the certification.
Boyle shared a story about a visit to a Costco distribution center. A semi-truck was loaded with freshly-picked strawberries. When it headed for the distribution center at 5 a.m., the workforce went, too.
“We’re going to follow that semi to the distribution center and this workforce group is going to watch their strawberries get pulled off the truck, tested—whatever quality measurements Costco does—and then they’re going to watch all their strawberries get disseminated to all the different Costco warehouses,” Boyle said. “They do all these tests on them, and one of the tests they do is they put a thermometer in the strawberry.”
A worker asked why that was done. The answer was that the test would tell whether the fruit had been heat-stressed.
“On the way back, the workers are in the van redesigning their entire work process, changing their breaks, changing who was going to take the berries out of the field and put them in the cooler,” Boyle said. “And the next morning they went to the entire workforce and said, ‘I know you all want to take breaks together, but we can’t.’”
The grower was losing approximately $50,000 a truck if the strawberries were sent back, and that happened three or four times in a quarter. The money the grower saved when that stopped paid for EFI’s services many times over.
Another example was women and wedding rings. Kenton Harmer, director of certification and impact for EFI, said management would tell women again and again to take off their wedding rings. Then they would have to tell them again the next day. EFI found out why they were reluctant to take them off.
“It comes all the way around to these cultural aspects of feeling safe—sexual harassment and safety—in the workforce,” Harmer said. “If we just sit there and yell about rings, we’re not getting anywhere. It’s when we’re looking at the system in total and giving people a voice that we start to uncover how we actually solve these problems.”
Ruzzamenti said that when word got out about a zero-tolerance policy on harassment, men began bringing their wives and sisters to work at the farm.
Boyle said these types of initiatives are critical to fighting the labor shortage.
“There is so much focus on how to differentiate to the consumer, but the labor shortage says you now have to start differentiating to the labor pool,” Boyle said.