BK agrees to pay more for Fla. tomatoes

MIAMI After a lengthy dispute with a farm workers advocacy group, Burger King said Friday that it would pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes grown in Florida. The No. 2 burger chain also said it would encourage grower participation in the program by paying an extra half penny per pound to help defray additional payroll taxes and administrative costs.

Burger King joins Yum! Brands Inc. and McDonald's Corp. in agreeing to pay the extra penny per pound, which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers advocacy group has said would help improve the wages and working conditions of Florida tomato pickers.

"We are pleased to now be working together with the CIW to further the common goal of improving Florida tomato farm workers' wages, working conditions and lives," said John Chidsey, CEO of Burger King. "The CIW has been at the forefront of efforts to improve farm labor conditions, exposing abuses and driving socially responsible purchasing and work practices in the Florida tomato fields."

In announcing the deal, Burger King apologized again for unauthorized online comments made last month that bashed the CIW. The comments were eventually traced back to a former executive, Steve Grover. After the incident, Grover, who had served as vice president of food safety, quality assurance and regulatory compliance, and spokesman Keva Silversmith no longer work for the company.

Burger King said on Friday that it has established a zero-tolerance policy for tomato growers that act unlawfully and would allow farm worker participation in the monitoring of growers' compliance.

The company also said it would work with the CIW to develop an industrywide vendor code of conduct.

Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the CIW, praised Burger King's participation in "righting the wrongs that have been allowed to linger in Florida's fields for far too long."

"We are one step closer to building a world where we, as farm workers, can enjoy a fair wage and humane working conditions in exchange for the hard and essential work we do every day," he said.

Benitez added that the CIW would continue to push other restaurants and supermarkets in paying extra to improve conditions for tomato pickers. CIW officials cited such restaurant chains as Subway, Wendy's and Chipotle, along with the Wal-Mart and Whole Foods retailers, as potential targets.

The CIW's tactics have included lobbying lawmakers and organizing protests against restaurant chains. Yum was the first company to agree to the penny-per-pound charge for its Taco Bell chain in 2005 after boycotts by the CIW. Last year, Yum expanded the program to include tomatoes purchased for its Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W All-America brands. McDonald's signed a similar agreement in 2007 following boycotts of its restaurants.

Before Friday's announcement, Burger King had refused to pay the tomato surcharge because it was concerned about legally paying additional wages to employees who didn't actually work for the company.