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You care about where your food comes from. Shouldn’t you care about who grew and picked it?

Today probably started with a cup of coffee and perhaps an egg, a piece of fruit, or some form of breakfast meat or meat-type product. Whether you ate at home or picked up something on the way to work, you weren't just consuming calories. In selecting each item you were, intentionally or not, taking a side in the ethical wrangling and consumer activism implanted in the American food system.

For the coffee, you had a choice of fair-trade versus conventional beans — or sourcing strategists at Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts made the choice for you. The egg might have come from a cage-free certified humane farm, and the tofu scramble had its own GMO-free label. You opted, or declined, to pay a little (or a lot) more for a USDA organic or sustainably farmed local apple or grapefruit. The vegetarians and vegans intentionally skipped the meat, but the carnivores chose whether to endorse grass-fed, pasture-raised, and humane slaughtering of animals.

These distinctions are increasingly visible to consumers beyond foodies. Anywhere there's food — from supermarket aisles to restaurant menus — American eaters have an opportunity to eat ethically and sustainably, and produce a tiny market shift toward their ideals.

Eaters aren't close to regularly considering the well-being of workers in the American food industry

Well, as long as you aren't concerned about the people who make all that food. While fair-trade products attempt to eradicate poverty abroad, consumers don't have much of a choice to support a living wage in this country. Organic and environmentally sustainable certifications lead consumers to supposedly wholesome products, but they hold no guarantees about the wholesomeness of the companies that produce those goods. Sitting down to a farm-to-table meal at a chic restaurant might feel like a principled splurge, but it could be brought to you on the backs of poorly paid staff at the farms and tables.

In fact, perhaps more than with any other purchase, that's probably the case: the food industry is the worst paid, and features some of the worst working conditions, of any employment sector. The industry is also huge. Every year it rakes in hundreds of billions of dollars, very little of which trickles down to ordinary workers. A report from public policy think tank Demos recently named food service, a huge component of the food industry, "the most unequal sector in the American economy."

Though organic is a household term, GMO labeling initiatives feature in electoral contests, and celebrities champion vegetarianism and veganism, eaters aren't close to regularly considering the pay, safety, and well-being of workers in the American food industry. Companies aren't marketing their labor practices, either, nor are auditors providing widespread certification of labor practices. This publicity gap is critical — but the cause is finally getting some attention, in the form of worker strikes, nonprofit movements, and more.

How workers are missing out in the food movement

Lots of certification options at the grocery store, but none that guarantee workers are treated well. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It was only 50 years ago that federal legislation finally mandated bare-bones labeling guidelines for food, a move widely resisted by producers but hailed by consumers. The last decade has been a different story, as producers voluntarily scramble to receive, and create, a patchwork of labels and insignias to make their products more attractive and profitable. By my count (aided by many trips to a local Whole Foods), there are at least a dozen different food certifications that deal specifically with ideological, moral, or political stances. Broadly, these ethical eating standards fall into three groups: natural and environmental, animal welfare, and economy and trade.

These certifications can apply to all sorts of products. Let's imagine I'm making a chocolate bar to compete with the offerings I've already scouted out — call it Stephen's Chocolate Buzz Bar (milk chocolate with espresso bean pieces). I'd start by making sure my product is made up of at least 95 percent organic ingredients, so that I can earn the USDA organic seal. In sourcing those ingredients, I'd make sure they are verified non-GMO, get my cocoa from a Rainforest Alliance certified producer, find coffee beans from a fair trade certified source (and why not bird-friendly, too?), and procure certified humane milk from a dairy producer. If I'm selling at Whole Foods, I'd also make sure I get a visibility boost from its Whole Trade Guarantee program. This would just be a portion of the programs and labels that try to distinguish a product from "conventional" ones. People have started to think about way more than just the taste of their food.

What these movements all offer — product differentiation — is attractive to companies and understandable to consumers when the certification becomes part of public consciousness. USDA organic was the first, and is the largest, to do so. Once a niche market, organic food is now the most prolific and lucrative alternative food program. After the organic movement expanded from the small number of self-proclaimed producers in the nature-conscious '60s and '70s, the US government took up organic standardization in 1990.

The United States Department of Agriculture and its National Organic Program finalized procedures and started endowing the USDA Organic symbol in 2002. Organic is now a household term and the standard feel-good option for ethical eaters, even as total market share remains about 4 percent of total food sales. Nonetheless, nearly 20,000 natural food stores as well as nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores offer organic alternatives. Eighty-one percent of American families also report at least occasionally choosing organic goods. Sales, having nearly tripled in the past decade, continue to grow more than 10 percent per year, due partly to food giants snapping up smaller organic operations as they see the opportunity for profit, as well as to the rise of a generation more familiar with organic food.

There isn't a standalone certification out there that verifies good labor practices

Meanwhile, Fair Trade products are also experiencing a boom, egg production continues to shift to meet ethical demands, and the popularity of verified non-GMO certification is soaring. GMO initiatives were even featured in two state elections last year. All manner of alternative food, riding the rapid expansion of the modern labeling movements, seems poised to join "organic" as mainstream options, offering everyone a perceived ethical improvement over standard fare.

Despite their positive connotations, none of those certifications — not even fair trade — tells a consumer anything about how a company or restaurant treats the humans involved in the US: its workers. In fact, there isn't currently a standalone certification out there that verifies good labor practices. Even as environmental, animal, and economic movements have started to compete for shelf space with conventional food, there is no widely available option for consumers who wish to shop and eat labor-friendly.

The realities of the food industry — from producers to servers — make this a perplexing and pressing deficiency. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nine out of the 10 lowest-paying occupations in America are in the food and restaurant industry. The highest earner of those, the occupation category that includes food- and beverage-serving workers, averages $9.63 an hour, or about $20,000 per year if, against all odds, it is full-time work.

That means each of those occupations earns below the poverty line for a family of four, and well below a real living wage. These wages aren't paid out to a handful of young Americans — they're paid to more than 10 million fast-food and food-and-beverage industry workers and to many of the million-plus agriculture and food-processing workers.

And what the food industry lacks in wages, it doesn't make up for in occupational health and safety. As Ted Genoways reported in the Guardian in December, horrendous working conditions in meatpacking plants are still commonplace, long past Upton Sinclair's time. Conditions on farms across the US aren't drawing favorable comparisons, either.

Organic, non-GMO, certified humane, or fair trade producers aren't an exception. Just looking at USDA organic producers, it's clear that all isn't swell in paradise. Beyond the fact that many major producers of these products offer non-union and minimum-wage work, a cursory look at Occupational Safety and Health Administration incident reports shows numerous violations.

Nature's Path, one of North America's largest producers of organic breakfast cereal, has an extensive rap sheet for employment negligence, including 14 violations in one year at a Milwaukee (non-union) plant that failed to have nearly any form of safety procedures for highly hazardous materials. Meanwhile, Peri & Sons, an organic onion farmer, set a record in 2012, settling with the Department of Labor to pay more than $2.3 million in back wages to more than 1,300 workers. Peri & Sons had recruited foreign workers whom they vastly underpaid under the terms of employment.

I'm not the first to poke holes in the dream of wholesome foods. Diane Brady wrote a cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek way back in 2006 ("The Organic Myth"), and the contrarianism has continued unabated. (For a good example, see Mark Engler's "Hijacked Organic, Limited Local, Faulty Fair Trade" in Dissent Magazine.)

Talking specifically about the labor conditions of the food system — both for the employers that brandish ethical and environmental certifications and those that don't — is a relatively recent and largely elite conversation. It's been a change within the so-called "food movement," a term used to refer to the community of food activists, authors, and chefs emphasizing organic, local, natural, slow, humane food.

The foodie community, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman told me, has only started talking about labor in the past couple of years.

Their approach to labor wasn't always friendly, either, said Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California Berkeley and co-director of an advocacy group for restaurant workers. "I remember a decade ago going to food movement conferences and frankly being somewhat disrespected," she said.

Many didn't understand the connection between food and labor. That's started to change — thanks in large part to voices like Bittman and Jayaraman, as well as writers such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser — but the issue isn't yet overtaking organic or certified humane as a top priority for the foodie community.

More important, the discussion isn't necessarily trickling down to people outside the foodie bubble, like other offshoots of the food movement have. And that's most people: people with the power to shift markets, lobby representatives, and change the status quo.

Why aren't food workers' rights a bigger issue?

A worker tends to bean plants in a greenhouse in California. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Given the size of the food system, the conditions laborers face from tomato to takeout, and the popularity of other ethical eating aspects, the labor issue really ought to be sparking a national reckoning. But it isn't even close. One example: while employed for six months at an upscale organic-local market in a progressive enclave of Washington, DC, I fielded many questions about the local or organic status of produce or the humane raising of meat. Not once did any customer ask about the labor conditions behind a product or whether the store's employees were making a living wage. That would be significant for any sample — but I happened to also be regularly selling food to activists, labor organizers, congressional staffers, and even journalists who wrote about labor issues. Still, the lack of concern for food laborers isn't all the foodies' fault — far from it. There are a number of scapegoats for why labor hasn't been factored into our food choices.

Jayaraman places most of the blame at the feet of big-business lobbies in the restaurant and agriculture industry. She believes consumers have been told that fair labor is impossible if we want food to be affordable. Jayaraman says these lobbies, and the companies behind them, "perpetuate the myth that the only way to operate a business in the food system or in the restaurant industry is to ... pay poverty and less-than-poverty wages." There is, however, a "mountain of evidence" to the contrary, according to Jayaraman. One study by her Food Labor Research Center concluded that even doubling wages for tipped workers would only raise food costs by 10 cents per day on average. A look at Denmark's Burger Kings, or domestic successes like DC's Busboys and Poets or Pittsburgh's Bar Marco, are physical proof that food and fair labor can lucratively coexist.

There's a consumer psychology angle, too. Perhaps consumers are just selfish: many food-movement certifications help address self-oriented concerns — like organic produce being healthier, environmentally sustainable products saving the earth you live in, and non-GMO certifications ensuring a diet that's free of genetically modified organisms. A labor-friendly certification doesn't necessarily benefit the consumer in the way these other certifications do. That's only a partially satisfying answer, though — one that doesn't account for the altruistic motive behind cage-free and certified humane purchases, or fair trade.

"The fact that there's a label on eggs gives people the opportunity to make a choice"

Another psychological explanation is that negative imagery is the most powerful driver of consumption choices. The popularized images or awareness of slaughterhouses and unsanitary production lines will drive buying where vague concepts like "a living wage" won't. Under that theory, the image of a product has to be tainted in public consciousness before consumers will shift to alternatives.

Finally, there is a commercial explanation: companies have not offered consumers a choice for fair labor foods, restaurants haven't distinguished themselves as fair employers, and fair labor certifiers haven't penetrated the market sufficiently. Under that explanation, labor in food isn't a relevant question because there hasn't been a choice at all.

"The fact that there's a label on eggs gives people the opportunity to make a choice, and I think that's why labeling is important," Bittman said. Most people don't get "the option of saying would you rather buy chicken where the people [in the] slaughterhouse are getting paid $12 an hour than where the people in the slaughterhouse are getting paid $8 an hour." If consumers had a significant opportunity to support fair labor food and restaurants, it's possible they'd do so.

Each of these phenomena presents unique challenges — or perceived ones — for getting labor into our daily dietary choices. Nonetheless, solutions are sprouting. A new certification that includes labor as one of three key pillars has started making its presence known in stores. A new app that highlights labor-friendly restaurants has started to gain traction. The work of organizing and protest has started to force labor into everyday eating decisions. That national reckoning? It might be on its way.

Signs of change

A worker checks in on a beer in progress at the New Belgium Brewing Company (Hyoung Chang/the Denver Post via Getty Images)

If the profit motive is a main reason labor conditions are so poor, it might also be a reason they get better. Andrew Kassoy, Jay Coen Gilbert, and Bart Houlahan are three guys with an intimate understanding of the economic motivations. Kassoy spent 16 years in private equity, including his most recent stint as a partner in a $1 billion fund. Gilbert and Houlahan were cofounder and president, respectively, of the basketball apparel giant AND1. In 2006, they decided they'd had enough of the corporate life and united to launch the B Lab. One of the organization's projects is the certified B Corporation status, given to companies, rather than products, that pass muster on four impact areas: governance, workers, community, and environment.

Kassoy came to the project after he became increasingly dissatisfied with the corporate world, where, he said, it often felt like "little else matters to anyone" besides size and money. The B Corp movement, on the other hand, seeks to use the "power of private enterprise to create public benefit." The status, unlike other certifications, is specifically intended to evaluate an entire business as ethically and environmentally sound. By brandishing the "B" logo, the theory goes, companies will differentiate themselves from the crowd as consumers, investors, and potential employees seek to support wholesome business. The number of companies buying into that theory is still relatively small — about 1,200 are B Corp certified — but many more want to know how they stack up. More than 20,000 companies worldwide now use the B Lab's impact evaluation metrics to monitor their business. The B Corp status isn't just for food companies, and it isn't just about labor — but it's currently the best resource for selecting labor-friendly food. Given the extant interest of the foodies in other concerns, a comprehensive standard might be the way to loop in labor.

In fact, the commitment to an overarching certification is a response to the inadequacies of piecemeal movements. "Good businesses means a comprehensive, transparent view of a company's social and environmental impact," said Kassoy. That way you can avoid "unacceptable" situations where people are buying sustainable or organic lettuce but they "don't care who picked it."

That multilayered approach, though, means B Corp certification can only be a proxy for a standalone labor certification for the food system. For example, companies can be better on environmental standards and worse on labor, and still become a certified B Corp. There is no minimum score on the "workers" component of certification, though Kassoy insists the B Lab "reserves the right to deny B Corp certification to any company that doesn't meet the values of the movement." Nonetheless, without a present alternative, the B Corp status is the best available avenue for incorporating labor consciousness into food purchases.

It remains to be seen, however, whether producers and consumers are ready to embrace it: only about 100 food companies have attained B Corp status. The certification isn't attracting producers and driving behavior like organic and non-GMO movements have — and the companies that do are exhibiting some peculiar behavior. Take the two best-known food B Corps: Ben & Jerry's and New Belgium Brewery. Due to Ben & Jerry's sale to product giant Unilever in 2000, and New Belgium's rocketing popularity because of its Fat Tire brew, you can find both brands far beyond foodie hideouts. Neither have the certified B Corp logo on their packages, however. Instead, Ben & Jerry's flaunts its fair trade logo and boasts about happy cows and non-GMO ingredients. New Belgium notes its employee ownership in understated text on the front of the packaging, and its recyclability on the bottom. (The case of Ben & Jerry's omission is particularly confounding, since they go through an extra procedure to remain certified as a subsidiary of Unilever).

Direct confrontation over labor standards could lead eating to be considered as a moral and human act

Even the best companies have been sheepish about boasting their labor record. King Arthur Flour is the highest-rated food B Corp on labor issues, and was named in the top five of any B Corp on worker impact in 2014. Katie Walker, a spokesperson for the company, described working at King Arthur as the "complete polar opposite" of the normal food industry standard — and given her description of work life, it's hard to contest. King Arthur, a company of 388 workers at the busiest times of the year, starts with a minimum hourly wage for full-time workers of $11.25 an hour (Vermont's minimum wage is $9.05 an hour; New Belgium's lowest wage for non-temporary workers is $12 an hour) in addition to stock ownership. King Arthur and New Belgium are 100 percent employee-owned companies, operating an employee stock ownership plan where employees are given ownership stocks of the company as part of their pay package — and can retain that influence over the company until they leave or retire and sell those shares back. In these types of companies, you aren't likely to find the type of pay disparity you see in fast food, nor the abysmal working conditions, because employees retain more power and are often more integrated in the decision-making. More worker-friendly conditions are a natural result.

Walker, audibly excited, rolled out for me the list of worker benefits: profit sharing, green commutes, flexible schedules, and a free bag of flour and two loaves of bread each month. Employees under a certain income receive a heavily subsidized CSA share. All employees get a turkey or a veggie basket at Thanksgiving (from the farm next door, of course). After you work there for five years, you get knighted (as in, with a sword). King Arthur does all this for its workers and continues to profit.

Nonetheless, the USDA organic label is brandished on the front of the company's flour and the B Corp logo stuck on the back or side. That shyness is not unique among companies that show the logo. Of all the B Corp foods I found, only Sweetriot, a New York–based chocolate company, displays the B on the front of some of its goods.

The rationale for the omission varies. King Arthur's Walker said the company sees B Corp status as "a stamp of one aspect of the good things King Arthur is doing" and doesn't feel the need to put it front and center. Besides, the logo itself doesn't tell consumers what it means, unless they follow the web address to find out more.

When I asked Andrew Kassoy about the consumer problem, he wasn't put off. To start, companies use the B Corp status to court investors and hire employees as much as to attract consumers, so packaging isn't a huge concern for some. B Corp status has driven at least one recent high-profile move. A high-level Pandora employee left for B Corp certified Etsy because of its proven commitment to more than just money. More important, Kassoy says he thinks it is still early to pass judgment on the B Corp approach to consumers. He notes that consumer preference already exists for organic but that we haven't reached that point yet for other issues. "A few years from now, we will be on the front of the package," he says.

For that to be true, something's going to have to push companies to start promoting their labor practices. Producers are waiting for consumer preference for fair labor to develop before they commit to certified B Corp status and marketing; people need the option to choose fair labor products in order to develop a consumer preference. Mark Bittman says we're ready: he told me he thinks companies are "crazy" for not flaunting their labor practices. Bittman, Jayaraman, and Kassoy all told me a version of the same thing: if you give people a choice, if you educate them, if they think about labor, they will prefer the option that is better for other people, too.

That publicity of the problem can come around many ways. Jayaraman's organization, ROC-United, is trying to get diners to consider labor conditions when they go out to eat. The "Diner's Guide to Ethical Eating" is a report and app that lists both "high road" restaurants that treat workers well, and benchmarks against popular chains like Olive Garden. ROC-United wants people not just to use the guide to decide where to eat but, more important, the organization says, to have labor conversations with restaurateurs, report back, and join the ROC movement. The guide is a long way from Yelp-like popularity — though ROC is working to integrate comments from its app into Yelp. (The app has also attracted its share of critics.) Other new projects, like Swich, an app and website that scores New York City restaurants, also want to use tech tools to get consumers thinking about their "foodprint," though the "worker" score is often missing on restaurant profiles for now.

Activists hope the conversation about food and labor is going to come to mainstream consumers regardless of whether they know the B symbol or download an app. The Fight for 15 movement, and others in the coalition of fast food and retail workers calling for a $15 an hour wage, is responsible for the "largest labor protests in the nation in years," including a strike in December with participants in 190 cities. What started in 2012 as a fast-food strike has developed into a larger labor movement that, in 2014, resulted in five states passing ballot initiatives that raised wages for low-paid workers.

As food workers continue to be at the core of this movement, the working conditions of the food industry are very likely going to continue to make news in 2015. On April 15, organizers hope, diners will encounter "the largest low-wage worker protests in modern history" when the Fight for 15 movement has its national day of action. If successful, these protests might be an opportunity to consider labor and food together in a broader context. If servers and cooks have trouble affording food themselves, what about the retail sellers, the manufacturers, and the farmers? Direct confrontation over labor standards could lead eating to be considered as a moral and human act, more than simply a nice thing to do for plants, animals, and ourselves.

But perhaps it won't. With hopeful signs of media, business, and politics now starting to span the gap between food and labor, finding out the right proportion of each component is the next challenge.

Getting to fair food

Workers at a Fight for 15 protest in Chicago in 2013. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For anyone trying to eat ethically, for anyone who believes in fair and safe labor, the state of the food system is unacceptable. Saru Jayaraman, the activist, isn't convinced that consumer certifications and purchasing power will change things. "If we just consume differently, then we cede the democratic sphere to the National Restaurant Association and the Big Ag trade lobbies," she says. She's calling for more strikes, more non-foodie allies, and more popular politics to change the broken food system.

Andrew Kassoy, the businessman, says it isn't just about consuming differently — it's about structuring a whole market around new principles of business. "The real goal," he said, "is that there are millions of companies that are measuring what matters in a transparent, comprehensive way, and using that information in order to improve their performance. And then that we are showing that to hundreds of millions of consumers and workers who want to buy from and work at those kinds of companies, so you can drive a virtuous cycle. And that we're showing that to investors who see the opportunity to make great long-term risk adjusted returns by investing in those kinds of businesses."

Mark Bittman, the writer, believes it all, and adds a plug for the power of the written and spoken word. "I believe if I write about this stuff, then maybe enough people see it and make some noise and convince their friends to make more noise." That noise, he hopes, is directed toward elected leaders, most of whom "just don't bother to think about" food and labor. (Bittman favors Senator Bernie Sanders on labor and Congressman Tim Ryan on food, among others.) Our elected leaders could certainly do better on both topics, but Bittman asserts that we're going to have to make them.

"I believe if I write about this stuff, then maybe enough people see it and make some noise"

A shift in public consciousness might finally be afoot — the type that organic food has already passed. "I think it is changing, partly because I think the opinion leaders are writing and speaking about it," Jayaraman said. She recalled from the early days of this food movement that the reason people came to care about cage-free or organic products was almost invariably because they read a book or saw a film like Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation. Bittman credits Fast Food Nation as something like this food movement's The Jungle or Silent Spring.

Ultimately, the existence of the organic, certified humane, and non-GMO fads can be considered insulting as long as labor is ignored. Or it can be inspiring: in only a few decades, so many types of ethical and environmental eating have found a foothold. It's a positive sign that people may come to care about fair treatment as much as good taste.

Unfortunately, like the destructive or abusive conditions that help launch or sustain other food trends, we may need to understand how bad things are before we make them better. Greece offers a sobering example: when bosses shot protesting strawberry field workers, it became a national story that highlighted broader labor concerns. A recent paper by Andreas Drichoutis of the Agricultural University of Athens and collaborators found that Greek consumers now express a willingness to pay an average of a 49 percent premium for strawberries with a fair labor certification. No one has studied whether the same willingness exists here — a sign of how labor is still isolated from the food economy — but these results provide some hope of a larger market shift.

For now, every sip and every bite poses its own tiny ethical question. We are at a critical juncture for the food movement, one where every answer counts.


Lead image: George Rose/Getty Images
Copy editor and researcher: Tanya Pai
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