( Photo courtesy Equitable Food Initiative )

In his opinion piece in this publication, George Radanovich challenged Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) to “adhere to its own message.” 

Other than suggesting that EFI is trying to “force” retailers and suppliers to participate (how could we possibly “force” them to do anything?), Mr. Radanovich didn’t actually have much to say about EFI. His focus was on the United Farm Workers (UFW), one of 16 members of our multi-stakeholder governing board, and their legal battle with Gerawan Farming. 

EFI has nothing to do with that disagreement. But Mr. Radanovich did raise one legitimate question that deserves an answer: “So what’s this EFI experience really all about?”

Earlier this month a United Fresh Produce Association/Produce Marketing Association Joint Committee released its Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices. 

This charter reflects a healthy recognition on the part of major retailers and growers that the produce industry needs to raise the bar on labor standards, especially now that demographic changes and immigration policy are creating a labor shortage. EFI has been a part of this dialogue for a decade, aiming to find a win-win way forward as growers and retailers address challenges in a changing industry.

We all have more to gain for this vital industry by collaborating than by rehashing the same old battles of the past.

Since 2014, EFI has certified 28 farming operations for 11 produce companies in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. These farms, which together employ over 20,000 farmworkers, have met our rigorous standards for labor, food safety and pest management. 

In the spirit of the ethical charter’s focus on communication and management systems, these growers have also worked with EFI to train leadership teams in which workers and managers collaborate to solve problems, improve compliance, and even drive better business performance. 

This kind of training takes time and investment, and culture change is never quick or simple. No one could “force” a grower to implement a program like this; to do so would guarantee failure. 

The growers who participate do so because they recognize an opportunity to catalyze positive change, to improve their business, and to attract and retain good personnel in a tight labor market. And participating retailers recognize that worker verification of compliance improves assurance and continuity of supply.

The industry has reached consensus that now is the time to focus on labor standards, and EFI is a tool for the growers looking for a new way to approach workforce development. EFI can also create opportunities for companies to implement the principles of the ethical charter and earn their just reward in the marketplace. That’s what “this EFI experience” is really all about.

I’d be glad to discuss EFI and our intentions with Mr. Radanovich and his organization, or any industry professional looking to understand our approach to organizational change. 

Better yet, I could facilitate a conversation with a trained leadership team so that farmworkers and managers themselves can share their experience with EFI. We all have more to gain for this vital industry by collaborating than by rehashing the same old battles of the past.

Peter O’Driscoll is executive director of the Equitable Food Initiative.