by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labor

Dec 17 2021

Weekend reading: low-wage labor in the grocery industry

Benjamin Lorr.  The Secret Life of Groceries: the Dark Miracle of the American supermarket.  Avery/Penguin Random House, 2020.

I don’t know how I missed this one when it came out in mid-2020, but I did.*

I saw a reference to it and thought I ought to take a look, largely because I am gearing up to update my book, What to Eat, in a second edition for Picador/Farrar Straus Giroux.

My book, which first appeared in 2006, is about food issues, using supermarkets as an organizing device.

Lorr’s book, which I expected to be a superficial expose of supermarkets, is anything but.

It is a deep, detailed, personal, and utterly powerful indictment of the human rights violations perpetrated on workers in grocery supply chains: truckers, grocery store clerks, Thai workers on shrimp-catching boats.

The personal comes in because Lorr is an experiential immersion journalist.  He embedded himself with a trucker, the fish section of a Whole Foods market, and a Thai fishing boat, as well as spending several years doing interviews.  Using the personal stories, he has plenty to say about truly shameless exploitation of low-wage workers in order to keep food costs low.

If you want to understand what low-wage work—or the Great Resignation—is about, here’s an excellent place to start.

This is an important book about food labor issues, but also about how more general systems of exploitation are maintained.

The “more general” leads me to pick one bone with Lorr’s analysis.

For those of us, he says:

Who want to shake the world aware to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution with come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done.

His book, I’d say, proves just the opposite.  Food is his entry point into this topic and would not be there without it.

*I shouldn’t have missed it.  It was reviewed in the New York Times.  And Charles Platkin, whose work I follow closely, interviewed Lorr when the book first came out.

Nov 2 2021

Congressional staff report: Covid 3X harder on meatpacking workers

The majority staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has issued a scathing report: “Coronavirus Infections and Deaths Among Meatpacking Workers Were Nearly Three Times Higher than Previous Estimates.”

Newly obtained documents from five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates, which represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States—JBS USA Food Company (JBS), Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company, LLC (National Beef)—reveal that coronavirus infections and deaths among their meatpacking workers were substantially higher than previously estimated.

The report’s main findings:

  • Certain meatpacking plants saw particularly high rates of coronavirus infections during the first year of the pandemic. For example, 54.1 percent of the workforce at JBS’ Hyrum, Utah plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021.
  • Across companies, Tyson saw 29,462 employee infections and 151 employee deaths, and JBS saw 12,859 employee infections and 62 employee deaths.
  • Coronavirus Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants Disproportionately Impacted Minority Workers
  • The full extent of coronavirus infections and deaths at these meatpacking companies was likely much worse than these figures suggest.
  • OSHA made a political decision not to issue regulatory standards that might require meatpacking companies to take actions to protect workers.

Recall that meatpacking workers were among the first to get sick from Covid-19, causing

The report confirms that Covid-19 in meatpacking workers was and is a national tragedy and scandal, a direct result of corporate consolidation and capture of government.

The report’s recommendations to meatpacking plants, government agencies, and Congress can’t come soon enough.

Oct 22 2021

Weekend reading: labor issues in the food system

Saru Jayaraman has a new book out:

She explains what this is about in an email:

As described in this recent NY Times article, we have been documenting thousands of restaurants raising wages to a median of $13.50 plus tips nationwide in order to recruit staff. As a result, we are so close to passing One Fair Wage – a very hopeful, silver lining to emerge from several challenging years.

In this moment of incredible change, we are hoping to use my new book – One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America (New Press, 2021) – to call for policy that will make the increasing wages nationwide permanent.

Please join us for one of the in-person or virtual events.

The newsletter issued by Hunter College’s Food Policy Center (subscribe to it here) notes recent items about food workers, restaurants, and food labor:

Comment: Now more than ever, labor issues matter.  It helps to stay informed about what’s happening on the food-labor front.

Aug 12 2021

Cocoa and chocolate in the food news

In talking about cocoa and chocolate, it’s a quick move from candy to politics.

New ways to treat yourself on World Chocolate Day July 7: “While we usually think of chocolate as a sweet treat, many cultures and cuisines use chocolate to boost the flavour profiles of their main dishes.”  Suggestions: (1) Mix it into your chilli con carne, (2) Use it as a marinade for meat, (3) Dip your bacon in it, (4) Add it to your Bolognese, (5) Turn it into pasta.  [Comment: I don’t think so].

‘You, the whites, are eating cocoa. You bring the price … you have to give us a chance to sell it at the price that we want’:  ‘I am a cocoa farmer’ is the first in an occasional series by Dr Kristy Leissle, scholar of the cocoa and chocolate industries…Over time, the series will illustrate both the diversity of people who farm cocoa, and the similarities of their circumstances. Read more

Rise in US confectionery sales boosts Fairtrade payments to cocoa farmers: People are paying more attention than ever to the conditions behind the products they buy as a way to make a difference in the world, according to new research findings released by GlobeScan and Fairtrade International…. Read more

Mondelēz and Fairtrade Foundation offer financial support to female cocoa farmersThe new ‘Cadbury Farmer Resilience Fund’ designed to protect cocoa farmer livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic is providing grants that will empower thousands of women farmers to start small businesses and earn a decent living…. Read more

Mars Wrigley to meet industry cocoa officials to discuss LID payments:  Barry Parkin, the company’s Chief Procurement and Sustainability Officer, is set to meet with members of the cocoa industry and the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire this week to discuss the Living Income Differential (LID) and to underscore the company’s commitment to…full payment to farmers and control of supply to prevent cocoa from moving into protected areas. Read more

Can U.S. chocolate companies be liable for child-labor abuses in the global cocoa supply chain?  Chocolate brought Americans sweet respite in 2020—more than usual, according to recent research into pandemic purchasing. But the great irony in our chocolate indulgence is that it’s also a product borne out of great suffering…Within the next few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a pair of consolidated cases known as Nestlé USA, Inc. v. John Doe and Cargill, Inc. v. John Doe. Nestlé is one of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers and Cargill, the world’s largest cocoa bean processor.

And here’s the ruling: US Supreme Court rules in favour of cocoa companies Nestle and Cargill in child slavery case:  The US Supreme Court rules that Nestlé USA and Cargill can’t be sued for child slavery on African farms from where they buy their cocoa…. Read more

Comment: The issues in chocolate just won’t go away: unfairly low prices to producers of the raw materials, harsh and unfair working conditions, child labor, and overall power imbalances as displayed in the Supreme Court decision.

Jul 16 2021

Weekend food for thought (a good one!)

I saw this in a tweet from the Politico cartoonist, Matt Wuerker.  It’s too good not to share.

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.