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Originally published Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 3:06 PM

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Costco a part of new ground-up food-safety initiative

The participation of Costco, which agreed to play a major role in the new healthy produce and working-conditions initiative, was deemed critical.

The New York Times

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MOSS LANDING, Calif. — With piles of fresh strawberries beckoning consumers at markets and stores this season, an alliance of a major retailer, fruit growers and farmworkers has begun a program to promote healthy produce and improve working conditions.

The initiative, unfolding along neatly planted rows of berries at the Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce’s Sierra Farm in Moss Landing, is an effort to prevent the types of bacterial outbreaks of salmonella, listeria or E.coli that have sickened consumers who ate contaminated cantaloupes, spinach or other produce.

One of the workers, Valentin Esteban, is on the front lines of the new effort, having gone through a training program that helps him avoid practices that lead to possible bacterial contamination that could undermine the safety and quality of the strawberries he picks.

In exchange, Andrew & Williamson is providing Esteban better pay and working conditions than many migrant farmworkers receive, $9.05 an hour versus $8, plus $1.70 for every eight pints of bright, red berries that he picks.

“Sure, the money is important, but I also feel good because I am helping to improve quality and safety,” Esteban said. “Those things are important to my family, too.”

Last summer, more than 250 people in 24 states were sickened and three died after eating cantaloupes contaminated with salmonella. A year earlier, cantaloupe tainted with listeria killed 33 people.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) blamed conditions such as stagnant pools of water and dirty surfaces in packing areas, problems that farmworkers could help prevent.

“In those cases, the workers weren’t trained to address it or even recognize that those conditions might be problematic,” said Peter O’Driscoll, project director of Oxfam America’s Equitable Food Initiative. “Farmworkers can be the eyes and ears of the farm, helping to improve food safety and pest contamination.”

Farmworkers on front lines

Under the new program, with Andrew & Williamson the first grower to participate, berries sold under the label “Limited Edition,” would carry certification to inform consumers that food-safety protocols had been followed and that the workers who harvested the crop were treated fairly.

With Andrew & Williamson paying higher wages than almost all its competitors, the program participants hope the promise of better-quality, safer fruit and better conditions for workers will entice distributors, retailers and consumers to pay a little more, too.

Costco has agreed to play a major part and will sell only these berries in particular stores.

“Who is it that’s delivering the result — safer, higher-quality berries? Those workers,” said Jeff Lyons, the company’s senior vice president for fresh produce. “So yes, I’m willing to pay more, so long as the certification really means something.”

Costco’s participation was critical, said Dan Glickman, an Oxfam America board member who was agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration. “This can’t be a field of dreams, where if we grow it this way, they will buy it no matter the cost,” Glickman said. “Having a retailer like Costco buy into it was key.”

Ernie Farley, a partner of Andrew & Williamson, also pointed to the important role that farmworkers play. “This program means that, instead of one auditor coming around once in a while to check on things, we have 400 auditors on the job all the time.”

The company, which grows berries, tomatoes and cucumbers, pays a higher base wage than most growers, according to the United Farm Workers union. Andrew & Williamson also provides clean bathrooms, gloves to protect pickers’ hands, folding chairs to sit on at lunchtime and other seemingly small but much-appreciated perks, such as cups for water from coolers, a rare luxury for the workers.

In the program, the workers are trained in practices that enhance food safety — from not wearing jewelry that might fall into boxes of berries to detecting signs of contaminants and insects or other pests that might spoil crops. These practices can reduce the use of pesticides, something the environmental groups participating in the project are pushing for.

Incentive to report problems

Like many growers, Andrew & Williamson says it gets 9 cents of each dollar that its strawberries sell for at retail. With most of the revenue going to retailers, the farmworkers and the company were eager to increase their meager share. So when Erik Nicholson, vice president of the United Farm Workers, met with Lyons at Costco, he learned food safety was a top issue for consumers. The two of them embarked on a plan to improve conditions.

“We thought, what if we started educating workers to make them a little more aware of things like listeria and salmonella, potential pest issues like birds and wild pigs, the danger to their own health and the environment of overusing pesticides?” Lyons said. “Such training would make an impact that’s positive for the consumer and increase productivity for growers.”

Lyons floated the plan with some of Costco’s biggest produce suppliers at a conference, explaining that because the workers would be responsible for delivering better, safer fruits and vegetables, they deserved better pay. “Jeff introduced the project and started listing all these wacko socialists who were involved,” Farley of Andrew & Williamson said, pointing an elbow at Nicholson. “Hearing those names was scary to most of the people in that room, but Jeff made it clear Costco believed this was the right thing to do — and Costco is a big customer.”

In the past, workers had little incentive to report safety problems. They were paid at a piece rate, seeking to fill their boxes as quickly as they could, and taking even 10 minutes to report a safety problem would in effect reduce their pay. One manager said that, if workers saw animal feces in an area where ripe strawberries were ready to be plucked, they might have still simply picked those berries.

Pedro Sanchez, a farmworker, said he liked that the program encouraged pickers to tell supervisors about any safety issues in the fields. Now they also know their above-average pay is tied to the success of this food-safety initiative.

Before the initiative, “we didn’t have any system for dealing with things like when we found deer droppings in the field,” said Jorge Piseno, a farmworkers’ representatives who is part of the project’s worker-management leadership. “Now I know if we find a dead animal or animal waste, we should put up a 6-foot perimeter to quarantine the area.”

An unexpected benefit of the program is worker retention, a constant headache when pickers can swap information via cellphones about better pay elsewhere. Andrew & Williamson offers a bonus to workers who stay the whole season — and the food initiative has persuaded many workers to stay on.

One big question remains: How many retailers and restaurants will be willing to cover the initiative’s increased costs by paying more for fruit?

So far, only Bon Appétit Management, which operates 550 cafes in 32 states, has joined Costco in agreeing to buy Andrew & Williamson’s Limited Edition strawberries, though O’Driscoll of Oxfam said other buyers were interested.

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