by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labor

Apr 29 2021

The down side of cocoa farming

The big issues in that chocolate you like so much: low prices for farmers, unsustainable practices, child labor.  These are still with us.

Feb 3 2021

The endless debates about palm oil

Palm oil is on my mind these days because I just did a blurb for a forthcoming book, Jocelyn Zuckerman’s Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World, which I will say more about when it is published in May.

Palm oil raises so many issues that it’s hard to know where to begin: unhealthy degree of fat saturation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, child labor, labor exploitation, adulteration, and criminal behavior, with everyone who consumes products made with palm oil complicit in these problems.

Reporters for AP News have done some investigating.  Their most recent report talks about the links between child labor and Girl Scout Cookies. 

Olivia Chaffin, a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee, was a top cookie seller in her troop when she first heard rainforests were being destroyed to make way for ever-expanding palm oil plantations. On one of those plantations a continent away, 10-year-old Ima helped harvest the fruit that makes its way into a dizzying array of products sold by leading Western food and cosmetics brands….The AP’s investigation into child labor is part of a broader in-depth look at the industry that also exposed rape, forced labor, trafficking and slavery. Reporters crisscrossed Malaysia and Indonesia, speaking to more than 130 current and former workers – some two dozen of them child laborers – at nearly 25 companies…The AP found children working on plantations and corroborated accounts of abuse, whenever possible, by reviewing police reports and legal documents. Reporters also interviewed more than 100 activists, teachers, union leaders, government officials, researchers, lawyers and clergy, including some who helped victims of trafficking or sexual assault.

The AP also reports that abuses of labor in the palm oil industry are linked to world’s top brands and banks.

An Associated Press investigation found many like Jum in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia – an invisible workforce consisting of millions of laborers from some of the poorest corners of Asia, many of them enduring various forms of exploitation, with the most serious abuses including child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape. Together, the two countries produce about 85% of the world’s estimated $65 billion palm oil supply…The AP used the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers of the world’s most-consumed vegetable oil, as well as U.S. Customs records, to link the laborers’ palm oil and its derivatives from the mills that process it to the supply chains of top Western companies like the makers of Oreo cookies, Lysol cleaners and Hershey’s chocolate treats.

Cargill, which is involved in this industry, has responded to the AP report; it denies the charges.

Cargill does not tolerate the use of human trafficking, forced labor or child labor in our operations or supply chains. We expect all Cargill employees and our suppliers to adhere to our formal Commitment to Human Rights, which we enhanced in 2019 to detail the principles we embed into our policies and systems to protect human rights around the world. This Commitment applies to our workplace, communities in which we operate, and supply chains….Our efforts on the ground in our palm supply chain in Malaysia, Indonesia, Guatemala and globally focus on health and safety, responsible recruitment, and transparent contract and pay practices to protect and empower our workers, especially women who depend on their work in palm oil to earn a living and support their families.

As for deforestation, the industry argues for shared responsibility: Palm oil: Why shared responsibility is needed to cement sustainability improvements:  There is a disconnect between the reputation and reality of palm oil. Popular media paint palm oil as a primary driver of deforestation…. Read more

All of this suggests: Turbulent times ahead? Malaysia palm oil faces uncertain 2021 with price, production and policy challengesThe palm oil industry in Malaysia needs to prepare itself for an uncertain year ahead with expected price volatility, production decrease and policy changes in the west, with the government attempting to shift to more value-added products in hopes of providing a boost…. Read more

One of the great ironies of all this is that palm oil, which is highly saturated (and, therefore, raises the risk of heart disease), has been promoted and used by the processed food industry as a replacement for trans fats, now mostly gone from the market since required to be listed on Nutrition Facts labels.

Can palm oil be produced fairly and sustainably?  The answer depends on whom you ask.  The Independent has a quick overview of the controversies.

Jan 7 2021

What Covid-19 is doing to meatpacking workers and communities

A scientific report in Proceedings of the National Academies titled Livestock plants and COVID-19 transmission,” demonstrates the impact of Covid-19 on workers in meat and poultry processing plants.

Our study suggests that, among essential industries, livestock processing poses a particular public health risk extending far beyond meatpacking companies and their employees. We estimate livestock plants to be associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (6 to 8% of total) and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (3 to 4% of total) as of July 21….This study shows that meat and poultry slaughter plants were in fact vectors of the disease…Researchers found that poultry plants showed a significant relationship with COVID-19 cases, with pork plants showing the strongest relationship. Beef plants showed the strongest relationship with deaths from the illness.

The USDA has done its own analysis: “The share of all COVID-19 cases in nonmetro [rural] areas has been growing since late March, increasing from 3.6 percent on April 1 to 15.6 percent on December 7.”

Among nonmetro counties, the highest COVID-19 case rates are found in farming-dependent and manufacturing-dependent counties. The high prevalence of COVID-19 in manufacturing-dependent counties is due partly to higher COVID-19 case rates in meatpacking-dependent counties (those in which 20 percent or more of employment is in the meatpacking industry), almost all of which are manufacturing-dependent counties.

But another USDA report, specifically about the meatpacking industry, looks to me as though it is hiding what is happening in those plants.  It includes a chart indicating no special increase in cases among meatpacking workers.  No surprise, if meatpacking plants are epicenters that spread the infection to the local community (but the report doesn’t say that).

What it does say is this:

The two-week moving average number of new daily cases rose in meatpacking-dependent counties through the remainder of April, reaching a peak of nearly 50 cases per 100,000 by the end of the month. This two-week moving average was more than 10 times the prevalence seen in other rural counties. Even though cases in meatpacking-dependent counties started to decline in the month of May, they remained significantly higher compared to other rural counties, falling to just under seven times the number of average daily cases by the end of May.​…Even though meatpacking-dependent counties are dealing with a second wave, the surge in rural new cases does not appear to be driven by new outbreaks in the meatpacking industry. Meatpacking-dependent counties have maintained an almost identical pattern to other rural counties for a fifth straight month.

Confused?  Me too.  This looks like a whitewash.

Is this one result of the USDA’s moving the Economic Research Service out of Washington DC to Kansas City, a move clearly meant to—successfully—decimate the agency?

Politico asks: can the ERS move be reversed?  Not easily, alas.

It’s a good thing independent scientists and investigators are keeping an eye on this situation.

Leah Douglas of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) deserves much praise for tracking infections and deaths among farm and meatpacking workers.

Dec 8 2020

The Cocoa industry’s big problems: farmer poverty and child labor

Everybody loves chocolate but there’s a lot about its production that’s not to love.  It is a classic example of an exploited commodity: cocoa is grown in developing countries, sold at low cost, and processed in industrialized countries which reap the profits.

Chocolate producers are under pressure (not enough, in my view) to pay farmers decently and to make sure their kids go to school, not work.

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about these issues lately.   You can see what the issues are just from their headlines:

These are long-standing issues.  They should have been addressed more effectively years ago.   Here is some background reading:

Sep 22 2020

Corporate capture in action: e-mails illustrate the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite Covid-19

I’ve written previously (see this one, for example) about the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite worker illnesses, but much about the industry’s pressures on government has been based on conjecture.  No more.

In another example of the value of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), two groups have obtained e-mails documenting these pressures.

FROM PRO PUBLICA, September 14, 2020: “Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open: Hundreds of emails offer a rare look at the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. The draft was submitted a week before Trump’s executive order, which bore striking similarities.”

The e-mails indicate that the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the trade association for the meat industry, essentially wrote President Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which forced plants to stay open and workers to continue working under unsafe and highly virus-transmissable conditions.

For example (and look on the site for #6, which does a longer and even more compelling comparison):

FROM PUBLIC CITIZEN, September 15, 2020: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the pandemic, as shown in documents uncovered by Public Citizen and American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”

The documents show that:

  • The executive order signed by President Donald Trump regarding meatpacking plants, ostensibly invoking the Defense Production Act, was the result of lobbying by the North American Meat Institute, a meat-packing trade association, which prepared what appears to be the first draft of what would become the executive order;
  • The North American Meat Institute repeatedly requested that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discourage workers who were afraid to return to work from staying home;
  • Meatpacking plants asked the USDA to intervene on multiple occasions when state and local governments either shut them down over health and safety concerns or sought to impose worker health and safety standards; and
  • Smithfield Foods repeatedly requested that the USDA “order” it to reopen its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. – despite no legal basis for such an order.

WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE?

Check out Leah Douglas’s ongoing count of Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers.  Her figures as of September 18, include at least:

  • 804 meatpacking and food processing plants (496 meatpacking and 308 food processing) and 106 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of Covid-19.
  • 59,430 workers (42,606 meatpacking workers, 9,571 food processing workers, and 7,253 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • 254 workers (203 meatpacking workers, 35 food processing workers, and 16 farmworkers) have died.

To state the obvious: corporate capture of government agencies and the presidency is not good for public health or American democracy.

Aug 26 2020

Fox guarding chickens: OSHA’s worker-safety partnership with the meat industry

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has formed an alliance with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) to

provide NAMI’s members, workplace safety and health professionals, the meatpacking and processing workforce, and the public with information, guidance, and access to training resources that will help them protect workers by reducing and preventing exposure to Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), and understand the rights of workers and the responsibilities of employers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

NAMI’s motto is “One unified voice for meat and poultry companies, large and small.”  Its members are listed here.

OSHA’s stated mission

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

  • Do we see a potential conflict of interest here?  Indeed, we do.

Basically, the Alliance aims to

  • Share information…regarding potential exposure to COVID-19 and the challenges for exposure control in meat packing and processing facilities.
  • Develop information on the recognition of COVID-19 transmission risks and best practices.
  • Conduct outreach through joint forums, roundtable discussions, stakeholder meetings, webinars, or other formats on OSHA guidance and NAMI’s good practices.
  • Speak, exhibit, or appear at OSHA and NAMI conferences…regarding good practices.
  • Encourage NAMI members…to utilize OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program to improve health and safety and prevent COVID-19 transmission.

This looks like meat industry propaganda to me.

As quoted by Food Dive, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, called the deal “an outrage.” His statement:

Throughout the pandemic, employers have continued to keep workers and the general public in the dark about illness in the plants while trying to shield themselves from any liability for the role they played in the loss of life. It is shocking that the Department of Labor is now giving the meat industry even more power to police itself on worker safety.

He’s not kidding.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network is tracking cases.  As of August 17, its figures show confirmed cases of Covid-19 in

  • 474 meatpacking plants among 40,708 meatpacking work (189 deaths)
  • 269 food processing plants among 8658 food processing workers (34 deaths)

No surprisae, workers have filed thousands of complaints with OSHA.

What has OSHA done for them?  It co-issued (with CDC) guidance on what companies ought to be doing about distancing and masking. 

Are companies following this guidelines?  Not with much conviction.

That is why workers have had to resort to filing lawsuits against Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods—and OSHA—as summarized by ProPublica.

According to Politico (behind a paywall, unfortunately), the lawsuits reveal that OSHA admits that it is unable to police its own safety guidelines.

Although an inspector from OSHA’s Wilkes-Barre Area Office witnessed employees working “2 to 3 feet” apart without physical barriers — which goes against the Centers for Disease Control and OSHA’s safety recommendations — the agency concluded there was no “imminent danger” at the plant, the inspector testified during a July 31 hearing.

As always, it’s hard to make up stuff like this.

May 11 2020

Tone deaf food ad of the week: Kraft Heinz, this time

Thanks to a reader, Tony Vassallo, for sending this Kraft ad: “We Got You America

Given the demographics of who gets hit hardest by this virus, and increasing evidence that crowded food production facilities staffed by low-income workers who often lack sick leave and health care benefits, this unmasked cheerleading seems, well, tone deaf.

May 6 2020

Where are unions when we need them?

If Covid-19 does anything useful, it will be to expose how badly treated are low-wage farm, slaughterhouse, and grocery workers, suddenly deemed essential.  It also exposes the bad treatment of restaurant workers, now unemployed, and many paid so poorly that they do not even qualify for unemployment insurance.

Where are labor unions when we need them?  The union that organizes slaughterhouse workers explains why it is so weak.

Today, workers have lost power at the bargaining table. Giant meatpacking and food companies are more determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. This means hiring cheap labor, maintaining intolerably high line speeds, demanding cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities…Other companies actively exploit our broken immigration system, purposely recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants to create a disposable workforce. These immigrants often don’t speak English and aren’t aware of labor laws or their rights on the job. It’s a vulnerable, easily-intimidated workforce too afraid to speak out…This has resulted in an industry where workers have less bargaining power, where it’s becoming harder and harder to earn enough to support families, and where it’s becoming less safe to work.

The good news: signs of a newly emergent worker movement in recent strikes.  These are listed here.

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is a good reason to support this movement.

Organize!

Addition: This article, just out, has a good summary of the history of meatpacking unions.  

For several decades after World War II, conditions in meatpacking plants steadily improved as a result of pressure from workers themselves.  Starting in 1943, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, a labor union, organized meatpacking employees in major cities. At the height of its influence, this union secured “master agreements” with the largest firms, such as Armour and Swift, ensuring standard wages and working conditions across the industry.  One source of the UPWA’s influence was its ability to build interracial alliances.