Tuesday, June 7, 2011

We Hardly Knew Ye, Trader Joe

Yesterday I retweeted an article written by Barry Estabrook called The Profound Impact of a Penny. I'm not so naive as to think it was a coincidence that the publication of this article on Zesterdaily.com occurred on the official release date of Mr. Estabrook's book, Tomatoland, but it is persuasive and disturbing nonetheless. This is an issue that has been festering for years, and only upon reading this article yesterday did I realize how close to home it is hitting.

To backtrack a little, Barry Estabrook has written numerous articles (check out the one that ran in Gourmet before its demise) and devoted a large portion of his book (haven't read it yet, but have it on the list to read shortly) to exposing the abuses of farm workers working for commercial tomato farms in Immokalee, FL. This subject was front and center at the Washington Post's Future of Food conference in April. Eric Schlosser referenced the harm pesticides do to farm workers and the co-founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) sat on a panel about the impact of food and our current food system on ordinary people. Mark Bittman has also written about this issue in the New York Times.

It is well documented that in addition to the hard work, low wages, poor living conditions and potential for pesticide poisoning inherent in most commercial farm work, workers in Immokalee have suffered mightily: children and pregnant women working the pesticide sprayed fields, notoriously pitiful housing and instances of beatings and even slavery. The CIW seemed to have successfully achieved a penny per pound increase in the price paid for tomatoes when the twelve or so companies that grow almost all of Florida's tomatoes (nearly one-third of all tomatoes Americans eat) agreed to pay the penny increase. This amount would increase wages for individual workers from about $50 dollars per day to about $80. However, according to Estabrook, the companies imposed a condition - their customers, supermarkets, food service companies and fast food chains - had to agree to absorb the increase. There's the rub.

It's easy to agree to increase when you're not the one paying it, so the agreement by the tomato companies had no teeth until customers signed on. Apparently, Whole Foods was the lone supermarket assenter when it agreed to the increase. Fast food chains and food service companies supplying colleges, museums, etc. also signed on. But not Trader Joe's.

Burger King and McDonald's have agreed to pay an extra penny per pound of Florida tomatoes as well as only deal with growers complying with the Fair Food Code of Conduct which provides some basic provisions to protect workers . McDonald's! In 2007! And yet, Trader Joe's seems to be hiding behind legalese, suggesting that the agreement is "overreaching, ambiguous and improper."

Not one to take all journalism at face value, I headed over to the Trader Joe's website to read its corporate response for myself. I'm a licensed, though no longer practicing attorney and a reasonably well-educated person and I found its May 11, 2011 letter "To Our Valued Customers" difficult to decipher. What I could follow seemed unduly nitpicky and suggest that they want their wholesalers to absorb the cost and not have to think about it at all. the entire tenor of the letter smacks of a lawyer's keyboard. It is rife with language like "poorly conceived" and "improper on its face." It shouldn't be this complicated. If the company truly supported the rights and needs of these workers, its representatives could work out the issues on specific language of the agreement. Lawyers dealing with contracts do it all the time - I know, I was one. Why can't they get to yes?

Trader Joe's is not the only grocery store to fail to sign the agreement with the CIW. Most of the large chains have refrained as well. So why am I so distressed by Trader Giotto? Perhaps it's the friendly demeanor they cultivate in their staff. Or, maybe I've been suckered by the overall marketing scheme and feel betrayed. Or maybe, because I don't shop much at any other chain and I really like some of their products.

I shouldn't be completely surprised. In the early years of the trans fat revelations, I learned the hard way that just because Trader Joe's seems so homey and health conscious that it had not banned trans fat from it's shelves. I still had to read the individual labels to insure that there was no trans fat. Seeming health conscious, down home and friendly is a marketing ploy; there's a big difference between wood panelling and Hawaiian shirts and an actual commitment to bettering the world.

What to do about this stand-off? While I generally don't buy off season tomatoes and do most of my produce shopping at farm markets, I do buy some and I do spend a good portion of our food budget at Trader Joe's. Should I immediately stop shopping there? Should I send a letter to their management? Both? Neither?

I don't want to suggest to anyone else what to do either, as I'm still so confused. I'm allowing for the possibility that there is actually more to the story than the CIW says and that the Trader Joe's just didn't explain itself well enough. I want to do some more research and read some more about this issue. I hope you will, too, and let me know what you think. And I will write a letter to the management and see what the response is. And, I'll hope that Trader Joe's comes around.

Although I'm trying to take a little time and not rush to judgement here, I think I do know, deep down, what I have to do. The bottom line is that it is only one cent per pound. And McDonald's, McDonald's of the subliminal marketing to children and questionable meat-like substances, with customers who likely wouldn't care it they didn't come to terms with the CIW, has agreed to this.

Why oh why, Trader Joe's?


  1. wow, how eye-opening!

  2. Indeed! I just can't seem to equate Trader Joe's with Walmart. Guess that's what they're banking on!

  3. this is very disappointing to hear. I do think a letter(s) to their corporate offices would be a great idea. they pride themselves on their customer service and responsiveness, so a letter like this might be worthwhile. I hope.

  4. I know, Anna, I was really diappointed too. I did print out a letter from the website of the CIW and have signed it and will bring it into my local Trader Joe's store.

  5. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have enjoyed shopping at TJs for some years, for their high quality and organic selection. However, after reading about their refusal to sign onto the CIW agreement, I am confused and disappointed by TJs stance on this issue.