Chains' offer to pay more for tomatoes is rejected

MIAMI Florida’s largest group of tomato growers is urging its members not to accept an extra penny per pound for tomatoes sold to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and other chains that have agreed to pay the surcharge for the benefit of field workers.

Florida Tomato Growers Exchange officials said they believe participating in such deals could leave members open to racketeering and antitrust charges. The growers also voiced fears that McDonald’s and other major chains will begin to buy their tomatoes elsewhere. Florida supplies about 95 percent of the nation’s winter tomatoes. The extra penny was to be used to raise the pay and improve the working conditions of the fieldhands who pick the crop.

McDonald’s officials said they would uphold their agreement with the farm worker advocacy group Coalition of Immokalee Workers. A similar agreement was reached in 2005 between the CIW and Taco Bell, whose parent, YUM! Brands, recently expanded the pact to cover Florida tomatoes bought by all of the company’s brands, which include KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W and Long John Silver's. 

Under the agreements, a third-party entity ensures the penny-per-pound payment goes directly to workers. However, the deal does rely on participating growers to provide sales and labor data to determine the price to be paid and which workers are entitled.

Lucas Benitez, a CIW spokesman, called the growers’ move “a remarkable reflection of how out of step with the modern world much of Florida agriculture is today. Throughout the world, thousands of growers of crops, from coffee to bananas, have been happy to join the fair trade market and accept a higher price from their buyers that they then pass on to their employees in the form of higher wages and respect for fundamental labor rights.”