Ethical Charter finds pushback among grower groups

The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association asked for input on the draft Ethical Charter on responsible labor practices, and a couple of industry groups didn't take long to express their reservations about the document.

The document and the link to respond are available online.

"I'm not excited about it and I don't think too many members of our industry were involved in the drafting of the document or are aware of it," said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash.

While the document has the right motives, Schlect said there are already strong federal, state and local laws in the U.S. to protect workers.

"To have another set of standards that have what I think is happy talk is not that useful because what it will lead to eventually will be audits and then somebody has to pay for the audits and the only ones to pay for the audits will be growers," he said. "It's another layer of bureaucracy that is being imposed and I don't like it."

Growers that break labor laws should be accountable but Schlect doesn't believe the charter will be useful in communicating labor practices to consumers.

In its comments, Western Growers said members of the fresh produce supply chain should be complying with the standards already.

"We are concerned, however, with how the Ethical Charter may be used by some in the buying community," according to Western Growers. "Specifically, it appears that the Joint Committee's initial goal of leading the industry to a single auditable standard has gone by the wayside due to a lack of consensus by the buyer representatives on the committee."

Western Growers said produce buyers shouldn't bring audits into the business operations of their produce suppliers "absent reasonable cause to question the compliance of the producer's labor practices."

"However, a single audit is certainly preferable to a proliferation of buyer initiated audits, and resultant audit fatigue, such as we have seen in the context of food safety," Western Growers said.

If buyers require suppliers to adhere to the Ethical Charter plus additional requirements, then committee's efforts will be "deemed by industry to be a failure." Western Growers said.

One sustainability expert says the Ethical Charter is a needed call for harmonization.

"If the produce industry can't come together on this, it is a risk of reputation for everybody," said Emily Miggins, a former sustainability manager at Safeway.

Rather than have various retailers adapt their own standards, she said retailers could benefit by having a single standard.

What is needed, she said, is figuring out how to change business practices - such as through contracting with suppliers - to improve labor practices.

Since 2012 California's SB 657 law on human trafficking prevention requires a broad range retailers to respond to the law by showing the extent of their efforts in regards to verification, audits, certification, internal accountability, and training on the issue of preventing human trafficking. The topic is a high profile issue among retailers, she said.

"Obviously it is not just in produce, it is every (area) of food," she said.

Miggins said much collaboration and transparency is needed to help retailers address the issue of labor abuses. There needs to be a way to share information without violating antitrust laws, she said. At the same time, she said marketers and suppliers must figure out how to differentiate product grown with superior labor practices at retail.

Comment period

Public comments on the Ethical Charter are accepted until Feb. 20.

The boards of United Fresh and PMA established a Joint Committee on Responsible Labor Practices last year to the issue for the industry because of the growing interest of stakeholders in transparency throughout the global supply chain, according to a news release.

The charter addresses broad labor-related areas including:
  • Respect for laws at work;
  • Respect for professional conduct; and
  • Respect for fundamental principles and rights at work.