When the Easy Answer Isn't the Right One...

by Liliana Esposito, SVP, Chief Communications Officer
Oct 19, 2016 9:35 AM ET
Campaign: The Square Deal

The Square Deal Blog

When you have a job like mine, you get used to seeing your company’s name in the news a lot. Usually it’s good news. Sometimes it’s not. Right now Wendy’s is the target of a campaign led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an activist group that represents tomato harvesters in the Immokalee region of Florida. Their signature program is called the Fair Food Program and for several years, they have pressured Wendy’s to sign the Fair Food Agreement and join their program.

It sounds simple enough, and you may wonder why we have resisted this demand, particularly since some of our competitors joined the Fair Food Program after they were protested by the group. It’s certainly never pleasant to see your company criticized, but the easy answer isn’t always the right one.

The CIW’s actions show that they believe the only way for a company to act responsibly is to join their program and pay their fees. We simply disagree.

The CIW requires participants to pay an additional fee directly to the tomato harvesters that work for the growers, on top of the price we already pay for the product.

We have always prided ourselves on our relationships with industry-leading suppliers who share our commitment to quality, integrity and ethics. We support the goals of any organization that seeks to improve human rights, but we don’t believe we should pay another company’s employees – just as we do not pay factory workers, truck drivers or maintenance personnel that work for our other suppliers.

That would be like us asking our customers to pay for their food, and then adding another fee to go to our employees. 

It’s important to have a little background on purchasing tomatoes for a national restaurant system. Our tomato purchasing moves seasonally throughout various growing regions of North America during the year. In the warmer months, we purchase tomatoes from states like California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. In the colder months, we purchase tomatoes primarily from Mexico, which is what we have done for the past few years. In the past we purchased winter tomatoes from Florida, and we may do so again in the future. But right now, we are quite happy with the quality and taste of the tomatoes we are sourcing from Mexico.

Getting quality tomatoes in the winter is challenging, and our standards are high. Some restaurant companies purchase pre-sliced or pre-diced tomatoes, but we purchase only whole, ripe tomatoes that our restaurant teams slice daily for our sandwiches, and we use whole grape tomatoes for our salads.

So why does CIW have a problem with Wendy’s? Because we buy a lot of tomatoes for which they don’t receive any money.  The Fair Food program primarily operates in Florida and Wendy’s does not currently purchase tomatoes in Florida... 

...and that’s at the heart of these protests.

For years, CIW has pressured companies into joining their program, assuring their members that large companies had no choice but to purchase tomatoes in Florida. They claimed at the start of their campaign against Taco Bell: You simply can’t do business on the scale Taco Bell and Yum do business and not purchase your tomatoes from Florida, particularly given the prohibitive transportation costs of bringing tomatoes from Florida’s next biggest competitor, Mexico, to the major East Coast markets.

This statement is no longer true. In recent years, the tomato industry in Mexico has invested tremendous energy into innovation in tomato cultivation, and has made dramatic improvements in fresh produce sorting, handling and distribution. Leading produce suppliers in Mexico are critical trading partners for our company and many others. Many produce companies in Mexico are bringing great products to the U.S. market and consumers are benefiting from it.  And given the growth of the Mexico tomato industry, it’s clear that Wendy’s is far from alone in sourcing this way.

All of our suppliers, including those in Mexico, are subject to the same quality and food safety standards, and we actively perform over 1,000 audits annually against those standards. We spend a LOT of time with our suppliers and their teams – on farms, in fields, in processing houses, and with distributors – it’s truly a farm to fork commitment for us.  Our professionals are constantly on the road visiting or auditing suppliers because we believe that’s the best way to ensure that our standards are being upheld. I believe that our team of road warriors is the absolute best in the business.

But, it doesn’t stop there. Every Wendy’s supplier must go through a rigorous certification process, voluntarily participating in a whole host of auditing processes. We visit the farms and ranches where our fresh produce grows (iceberg, romaine, spring mix, tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries, etc.) in order to assess quality and food safety, and to ensure everyone in that operation – from business leaders to farm workers – understands and follows good and safe agricultural practices. We have a comprehensive Supplier Code of Conduct which requires our suppliers – for tomatoes and everything else we buy – to adhere to high standards for integrity and business practices.

Where we differ with the CIW is in their belief that we should focus on a single group of people – in this case, tomato harvesters in one region in Florida – and assign them additional pay without having an employment relationship with them. Make no mistake: we believe that promoting human rights and safe working conditions in agriculture is vital. All of us in the food supply chain have an obligation to ensure that the products we sell have been raised and harvested in a responsible way. We’re always open to having constructive conversations and we’ll continue to strive for progress. We require responsible business practices in our supply chain and will continue to work to bring greater transparency to these practices so that our customers can continue to feel confident in the brand we love and the values upon which it was built. It may not be the easiest path to travel, but we believe it’s the right one.

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