Chipotle battles new criticism from growers' group

March 29, 2012 | by Valerie Killifer

While Chipotle gears up for its April 22 celebration of Earth Day, the chain is facing scrutiny over its unwillingness to work with the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization dedicated to improving the working conditions of tomato harvesters in Florida.

At issue is the burrito giant's apparent reluctance to put its weight behind the CIW's fight to end abuses suffered by farmworkers, despite the chain's well-marketed tagline: “Food with Integrity.”

While it would not enter into a formal agreement with the CIW to pay tomato harvesters a penny more per pound per bushel, Chipotle did enter into a 2009 agreement with East Coast Farms, a Lake Worth, Fla.-based grower for tomatoes picked for Chipotle.

However, Chris Arnold, Chipotle's director of communications, said the restaurant chain has not worked with the farm for quite a while even though it continues to support other growers that support the CIW.

Representatives of the organization believe Chipotle's stance is misleading, given the chain has "steadfastly refused to enter into any agreement or partnership with the CIW," said Greg Asbed, Coalition co-founder.

The CIW's first foray with Chipotle was in 2006, when the group alleged that Chipotle purchased tomatoes from farms that underpaid and often mistreated their workers. At the time, Chipotle said it was being unfairly targeted because of its association with McDonald's. From 1998-2006, McDonald's held 80 percent of Chipotle's stock.

Over the years, Chipotle has chosen to pursue other avenues of supply chain stewardship, and the company maintains that its direct relationship with independent growers supports worker wages as does working with the CIW.

"We have always believed that there is more than one way to impact upon any problem or issue," Arnold said. "For more than 10 years, we have served pork from pigs raised on open pastures or in deeply bedded barns and without the use of antibiotics, and we have done that without any third-party agreements. Working with growers who are part of the CIW program creates the same result. Workers receive the same benefits of the program and CIW has the same ability to assess the grower's practices to ensure that they are in compliance with the program."

However, Asbed contends that Chipotle is, in fact, using its former affiliation with McDonald's to sidestep a partnership with the CIW and its Campaign for Fair Food, opting instead to go it alone.

"To the extent that Chipotle has any idea whatsoever about what is going on in the Fair Food Program, and therefore how it should conduct itself in order to maintain the illusion of partnership, it is the result of the fact that Chipotle happens to use the same middleman as McDonald's, and therefore gets some information about the Program (but obviously not always accurate information) from the middleman," Asbed said. "In other words, they are trying to ride McDonald's coattails, but not doing a very good job of even that."

This isn't the first time the CIW has gone after a major restaurant chain. In 2005, the company planned a boycott of Taco Bell restaurants until they agreed to pay a penny more per bushel to Florida tomato harvesters.

In March 2005, the CIW secured a commitment with Taco Bell, in which the Yum! brand agreed to address "sub-standard farm labor wages," and enforce a Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers in the quick-service industry. Taco Bell also agreed to 100 percent transparency for its tomatoes purchased in Florida and to market incentives for agricultural suppliers in the industry.

The agreement between Taco Bell and the CIW established a precedent for future agreements between the organization and several other quick-service restaurants, such as McDonald's and Subway.

In 2007, McDonald's announced its landmark agreement with the Coalition to pay a penny more per pound to workers who harvested its tomatoes. The agreement also said McDonald’s would enforce a stronger code of conduct based on the principle of worker participation and would collaborate on the development of a third-party mechanism for monitoring field conditions and investigating workers' complaints of abuse. That was the industry's first collaborative effort of its kind.

Two years later, Chipotle and members of the CIW were in talks about a similar proposition. However, Chipotle "didn't do what we asked them to do in those discussions," Asbed said. Instead, the company signed its own agreement with East Coast Farms.

And, it's that independent spirit that has drawn criticism from the CIW.

"For whatever reason, they think they can go it alone, despite having so far failed miserably in that effort. So, that raises the question of why Chipotle won't join the Fair Food Program, since they claim (albeit incorrectly) to be doing what is required by the Program," Asbed said.

The CIW's Campaign for Fair Food was launched in 2001 with the boycott of Taco Bell. The idea behind the program is to leverage the purchasing power of major restaurant and retail chains to improve farmworker wages and working conditions.

To date, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group and Trader Joe's have joined the program. And through the agreement with Compass Group, the CIW also was able to secure participation from East Coast Growers, the third-largest tomato producer in Florida.

The CIW's Campaign for Fair Food also has gained momentum with tomato growers in Florida.

In November 2010, the CIW signed an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange that expanded its Fair Food principles. Specifically, it looked to establish:

  • A strict code of conduct for supervisors;
  • A cooperative complaint resolution system;
  • A participatory health and safety program; and
  • A worker-to-worker education process – to more than 90 percent of Florida's tomato fields.

Today, more than 90 percent of Florida growers participate in the CIW's program.

Support from government officials

The CIW has gained widespread support in recent years from government officials. During their latest campaign to have Publix join the Fair Food program, Ethel Kennedy and her son, Robert F. Kennedy. Jr., joined a group of Immokalee workers who were fasting during a 6-day protest of the grocery chain.

And in June, when the U.S. State Department released its "Trafficking in Persons Report," Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised the organization, saying the end to slavery "is everyone's responsibility."

"Businesses that knowingly profit or exhibit reckless disregard about their supply chains, governments that turn a blind eye or do not devote serious resources to addressing the problem, all of us have to speak out and act forcefully,” she said.

At the time, Clinton was hosting a ceremony in which Laura Germino, of the CIW, was named a 2010 “Anti-Trafficking Hero” by the U.S. State Department.

Meanwhile, Chipotle has maintained its stance that the two groups are working toward the same result.

"We have long believed that we share some common ground with CIW in that we are both trying to improve things in the nation's food system," Arnold said. "Where we differ is in approach. CIW has been a leading champion on the issue of farmworker rights, while we have taken a more holistic approach and have been working to impact upon a number of areas."

Read more supply chain news.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Food & Beverage , Food Safety , Fresh Mex , Operations Management , Sustainability

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