In the 14 years since the USDA guidelines were announced, the business of organic food has gone from niche to mainstream. Economic Research Service estimates put domestic sales at $35 billion for 2014, up from $28 billion in 2012. According to a recent survey on food labels by Consumer Reports, 49 percent of shoppers look for the “USDA Organic” label when they’re at the grocery store.
The limits the federal organic standards put on chemical pesticides and fertilizers help draw in health-conscious consumers who’d prefer to limit the amount of bug-killing poison on their food. But there’s another perspective to consider in the organic debate, one that’s increasingly becoming its own field of activism, both on farms and for organizations working on labeling standards: worker welfare. The pesticides you’d rather not feed to your kids present myriad health problems to the people who spray and harvest the foods being treated with them.
In addition to concerns over worker safety, another consideration is wages—an issue the federal organic label doesn’t touch on at all. Thanks to an unfortunate quirk in U.S. labor law, farmworkers aren’t guaranteed a minimum wage, and many toil under grueling conditions to be paid pennies per pound for the food they haul in from the fields.
Although it’s been decades since Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers brought the plight of grape and lettuces pickers into the national spotlight in the 1960s and ’70s, the issue of worker welfare in agriculture is by no means a thing of the past. Consumer Reports found that 87 percent of Americans support fair working conditions for farm labor, and 92 percent support local farmers.
That majority support is apparent in the recent successes of farm labor groups and the expansion of worker-welfare food labels. The Coalition of Immokalee Farm Workers has made major strides to reform the Florida tomato industry—recently home to widespread labor abuses and modern-day slavery—by petitioning large buyers to pay just a penny more per pound. Earlier this year, the Equitable Food Initiative debuted its “trustmark,” a label that assures consumers the people who harvested the food were paid fair wages and work under safe and fair conditions. Programs like Food Justice Certified and the Domestic Fair Trade Association are expanding in the United States too; the latter is bringing a label often associated with imported products such as coffee and chocolate to American-grown crops.
Consumers appear ready to support such developments, both morally and financially. The Consumer Reports survey found that 79 percent of shoppers are willing to pay more for produce harvested by workers who are paid a living wage. More than a third of consumers said they were willing to pay 50 cents or more per pound extra for such food.
Worker welfare and labels will be the topic of a panel moderated by Colette Cosner, executive director of the Domestic Fair Trade Association, at the Consumer Reports conference on food labels. The free event (RSVP required) will take place Sept. 19 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at San Francisco City Hall.
The farm labor discussion promises a look at the history of efforts to improve pay and working conditions for farm laborers, as well as the successes and failures of representing worker welfare on a consumer-facing label. Huerta, who at 84 continues to advocate for farmworkers, will speak at the event.
Other panels at the conference will cover animal welfare, sustainable food production, and a broader discussion of the crowded and often misleading world of food labels, highlighting the meaningless—such as “natural”—and those that are giving consumers what they’re looking for. By banning the “natural” label, space can be created for the credible labels to succeed in the market. According to Consumer Reports, the goal of the event is for “consumers to know the difference so they can make a difference in the marketplace.”