Andy Nelson, markets editor
Andy Nelson, markets editor

The series of articles in the Los Angeles Times highlighting abuses of workers in Mexican produce fields shook the industry.

But officials and importers I talked to recently in Nogales, Ariz., said that after a few weeks of fielding a lot of calls from worried retailers, things have settled down.

People in Nogales don’t accuse the L.A. Times of making things up. Some workers in Mexico clearly are abused, and everything should be done to make their employers change their ways and pay for their sins.

But with enough time having passed for the dust to settle a bit, the industry consensus remains the same: by focusing on a few egregious cases, the Times series did not portray the Mexican produce industry fairly.

Still, shippers and importers are seeing this as a learning opportunity, Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, told me.

Actually, it started long before the L.A. Times made headlines.

“Something we did a lot over the last year was recognizing a trend and educating our members about what is expected” regarding social responsibility, Jungmeyer said.

For most, that doesn’t mean changing what they’re doing, since they’re already doing the right thing. It’s about the message.

“Mexico is not doing a good job of telling its story,” Jungmeyer said. “There are a lot of good things going on down there.”

There are areas of the industry that do a better job than others, largely based on size and location, Jungmeyer said. The more the industry can present a unified front, the better.

To that end, Mexican shippers have led the way in forming the International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance, of which FPAA is a member.

The idea behind the group is to get people from different corners of the industry on the same page when it comes not only to doing what’s right, but getting the word out about those efforts.

Growers of different commodities from different areas, Jungmeyer said, need to sit down around the same table, swap ideas on best practices, then take those ideas back to their groups.

Part of the group’s — and the industry’s — communications effort will be educating people about how hard it can be to try to graft certain mentalities onto another culture.

Jungmeyer cited child labor in Sinaloa. About 17 years ago, the Sinaloa produce industry started to seriously address the issue, with growers eventually concluding that they would not hire workers who brought their kids to the fields with them.

The only problem was, in their culture, many workers did not trust other people to take care of their children.

After a few years, when growers realized their new policy wasn’t working, they began inviting grandmothers or other respected family members to accompany workers to production areas, where they could help oversee the children in grower-operated child care centers near the farms.

“It started to create a different culture,” Jungmeyer said.

Here’s hoping the Mexican industry and the new group it formed can create similar success stories.

anelson@thepacker.com

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