Recently, the Co-op has received several communications from consumers asking us to boycott Driscoll’s berries at our store due to issues around their partner farms’ labor practices. Farm labor is an important issue in the current food market, and it’s one that deserves our attention.  However, it is also a very complex issue that has many facets and a long history.  At this time, the Co-op will not suspend sales of Driscoll’s products.  Instead, we intend to be transparent about the challenges involved in the matter and educate our customers on the very serious issues at hand.

The Driscoll’s boycotts have been going on for years, and the matters being discussed are very real and very serious.  However, the unfortunate truth is that it is only a small piece of a much bigger problem.

The dirty secret of the business of food is that, quite often, the product is produced via the exploitation of farm workers who earn impossibly low wages and live in unacceptable conditions. Driscoll’s partner farms have been called out for these practices and consumers are reacting to those protests.  But their competitors often run with the same, if not worse, conditions.

Farm labor practices are a pervasive issue in the farmed food market, one that exists in other countries and here in the US. These issues have become more exposed over the last few years, and not just on berry farms. In December of 2013, the Los Angeles Times printed this report that exposed the issue nationally. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has had great success in pressuring large scale buyers to help improve conditions for tomato pickers in Florida and California, their efforts are featured in an excellent documentary called Food Chains. These are just a couple of the many sources of information about a very large, very complex issue that is haunting our food system.

Driscoll’s issues have arisen from two berry farms that have purchasing contracts with the company. One in Mexico and one in Washington state. Last Spring, Driscoll’s reported that Berry Mex increased the earning opportunity for each worker to an average of $5.00 to $9.00 (USD) per hour. This pay increase means that each individual now has an average earning potential of six to ten times of Mexico’s minimum Federal wage and as much as 16 times for higher performing workers. As of Monday, March 31, 2015, 100 percent of the Berry Mex work force is back on the job and operations are returning to normal.  In June of 2015, Baja farmworker leaders, the Mexican federal government and growers representing the fruit and vegetable industry reached an agreement to achieve better wages and working conditions for local farmworkers in that region.   This agreement ended a strike across all crops, not just berries or only those berries sold under the Driscoll’s brand.

In Washington, the matter involves workers at Sakuma Brothers Farm in Burlington, WA. Also a large supplier for Driscoll’s, Sakuma Brothers has been in a labor dispute for several years with their workers over fair wages and working conditions and have yet to come to an agreement. The debate led to a call from workers to boycott the products and a worker walkout.  The matter has attracted the attention of Fair World Project (FWP), a nationally based nonprofit and leader in fair trade advocacy.  FWP has forced Driscoll to address the workers, and they were invited to the negotiation table.  In this statement, FWP said Driscoll’s “has taken these concerns seriously [and] spoken with Sakuma management and asked for improvements on behalf of farmworkers.”

In our operations, this issue is a challenging one because we have very little control over our supply of berries.  Driscoll’s is, by far, the biggest supplier of strawberries in the market, and we don’t often get an alternative option from our distributors.  So to boycott Driscoll’s would mean being left without berries more often than not, and that would makes us a less viable resource for our shoppers. We encourage you to shop your values, and to avoid purchasing Driscoll’s product, if that is where your conscience leads you.

While the Co-op will not be boycotting Driscoll’s we have already pursued the following actions:

  1. We have posted educational materials about fair labor and the Driscoll’s boycott in the store to help educate consumers about this issue and encourage them to make an informed choice with their purchases;
  2. We have requested that our distributors provide us with non-Driscoll’s berries whenever possible, and encouraged them to seek alternatives to Driscoll’s in their supply chains;
  3. We have and will continue to source as much local, sustainable produce as we can to provide our shoppers a fair labor choice;
  4. We will continue to evaluate our selection, monitor labor practices, look for fair labor options, and make the best decisions possible for our business and our community.

We appreciate the feedback we have received on this issue. Your communications have reassured us that this is an issue of great importance to our owners and consumers as well as to us. We take this, and all food justice issues very seriously, and are glad to engage in active conversation about them, to educate ourselves and, when possible, our consumers.