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Strides made in the tomato industry could provide a model for improving working conditions on farms nationwide, according to the industry's leading chronicler.

Barry Estabrook,

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Tomato Industry Expert to Speak in Seattle

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Strides made in the tomato industry could provide a model for improving working conditions on farms nationwide, according to the industry's leading chronicler.

Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, credits the Coalition of Immokalee Workers with devising the shrewd public relations strategy that led to a recent deal guaranteeing tomato pickers better pay, medical care, and shaded tents for breaks.

"For the first time, there's a system in place that will go a long way to making sure occurrences of slavery and people being sprayed with pesticides don't happen," says Estabrook, who's speaking in Seattle next week. "It's really amazing. It's gone from being one of the most oppressive industries toward its workers toward being one of the most progressive."

For years, the Coalition has pressured the leading buyers of Florida's winter tomatoes to help halt incidences of slavery, sexual harassment, and toxic chemical exposure in the tomato fields. The fight culminated last November with a contractual agreement between the Coalition and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which oversees tomato purchases for fast-food restaurant including Burger King and McDonald's.

The Fair Food Agreement secured an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked ("the difference between 50 bucks and 80 bucks a day," Estabrook says), established grievance procedures, and required the use of punch clocks, among other clauses.

Putting the achievement in perspective, Estabrook says, "It's taken it from a complete system of abuse to one of the lowest-paying, toughest legal jobs you can perform."

Yet few other food-producing industries have instituted similar safeguards. Estabrook calls the agreement "one of the only bright spots right now in agricultural labor."

"The situation in California has deteriorated since its heyday," he says. "There are horrible conditions in the meat processing industry. But I think the Coalition has given a template."

The Coalition hit upon the tactic of connecting slavery and other human-rights violations to the products' end users instead of the growers directly responsible for them.

"To the average consumer, these tomato companies are nameless," Estabrook says. "You don't know their names, so you can't pressure them. But you can pressure McDonald's."

According to Estabrook, fast-food chains which had built multimillion-dollar campaigns around ostensibly cute clowns, Chihuahuas, and little girls with braided red hair didn't want their reputations sullied by accusations of severe social injustice. All the major fast-food chains eventually caved to the Coalition's demands, he says.

But, with the exception of Whole Foods, none of the major grocery chains have yet followed suit.

"It's important all the players come on board," Estabrook says, pointing out that the 50 percent of Florida tomato farms growing fruit for groceries are unlikely to voluntarily enforce the terms set out in the Fair Food Agreement.

"For example, if an extremely good farm boss was found to be sexually harassing a worker, a farmer who deals directly with grocery stores might not be inclined to punish the farm boss if he's good," Estabrook says.

Holdout chains include Walmart, the nation's biggest grocer. Earlier this year, Michelle Obama partnered with Walmart in conjunction with her anti-obesity campaign; the chain pledged to reduce sugar and sodium in its packaged foods, but the treatment of workers responsible for picking the healthy fruits and vegetables on its shelves wasn't addressed.

"It's a crying shame, because how sustainable is a food system that's built on the most dreadful conditions imaginable?" Estabrook says. "Would you feel good about eating an organic tomato if you knew it was picked by a slave? If you've eaten a winter tomato, you're likely to have done that."

Estabrook next Tuesday will join Jeff Miller of Willie Green's Organic Farm and Lisa Nakamura of Allium for a panel discussion sponsored by Whole Foods. "The Consumer's Conflict: The Cost of Fresh Picked Produce in the 21st Century" begins at 6 p.m. at the Center for Urban Horticulture. Tickets are $20.

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