U.S.: Equitable Food Initiative ‘not just another certification’ - FreshFruitPortal.com

U.S.: Equitable Food Initiative ‘not just another certification’

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U.S.: Equitable Food Initiative ‘not just another certification’

Early adopters of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) have found the one-stop shop scheme isn’t only helping with compliance but also raising productivity through its hands-on approach with workers.

EFI executive director Peter O’Driscoll says social corporate responsibility is a “hot issue” right now. And rightly so - whether it be for the sake of consumers, markets or simply themselves, everyone wants to prove their credentials when it comes to how they treat workers and engage with communities. 

But the EFI goes further than that, encapsulating a wide range of compliance factors in a bid to reduce paperwork; for example, growers with GlobalG.A.P. and SQF certification already get credits for the scheme to avoid re-auditing.

“We don’t just want to be a certification for corporate social responsibility and food safety,” O’Driscoll said during the PMA Fresh Summit in Orlando last month.

“We believe the training skills that we develop on farms that help them help with compliance issues can also be applied to productivity, efficiency, recruitment and retention, shrink and all sorts of bottom line business issues.

“I think we’re very sympathetic to the concerns of growers who feel they’ve got a lot of demands from different buyers for different certifications and proprietary programs and so forth. We don’t want to be just another one in the queue for requirements like that.”

The EFI has already signed contracts for training and certification with 12 companies and “probably eight more in the wings”. 

Peter O'Driscoll (EFI), LeAnne Ruzzamenti (EFI) and Manuel Rivera (Alpine Fresh).

Peter O'Driscoll (EFI), LeAnne Ruzzamenti (EFI) and Manuel Rivera (Alpine Fresh).

“We’re very busy at the moment – that’s a good problem to have, and we anticipate that we grow from about 15 certificates now to 200 by 2020,” he said.

With certifications in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico the program has taken a predominantly North American focus to date, but that is by no means the full picture for the future, according to O’Driscoll.

“That’s the exciting thing. We are working with companies that want to demonstrate to their customers that their entire supply chain is responsible and that they’re meeting the highest food safety and pest management standards.

“What that means is companies that we talk to here in the States are engaging in their own proprietary operations not only in Mexico but we’re talking Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, just here at the PMA.

“And we want to be able to follow the supply chains back to the source so they can say to any of their customers that any product they buy is up to the standard.”

The experience of grower Alpine Fresh, which grows and trades a range of vegetables, berries and tropical fruits in different parts of the Americas, is a good case in point.

“I can say that I have been under the program for a little over a year and at the packinghouse levels we’ve already seen benefits,” said Alpine Fresh director of fresh cut Manuel Rivera.

“The training that they brought to the table not only helped towards the certification and the social responsibility aspect of the process, but it engages the workers in ways that they usually don’t.

“They are now part of the decision marking processes of the farm – they understand the little bit of effort they put in really becomes part of the final product.”

This cultural shift of a bottom-up approach has significantly changed processes on certified farms, according to Rivera.

“Once they see themselves as part of the process then every action they take, they want to do it in a way that reflects the highest value to the company,” he said.

“It includes increased harvest yields, packing productivity, even less working hours in total. They might work the same amount of hours individually but the total output is higher.

“We saw the benefits of the engagement of the leadership teams and the people at the base of the pyramid. Is it expensive? Yes. Will you make your money back? Of course.

And this sense of ownership and responsibility for workers has the potential to extend beyond just productivity. Could it also play a part in diffusing labor conflicts like those seen in the Mexican state of Baja California in recent times.

“I am actually in Baja, in northern Baja, not in southern Baja where the issues were,” Rivera said.

“Four months ago we hired about 50 people that came from southern Baja – they were just itinerant workers, but from them we have about a dozen that actually liked the environment so much that they rented homes and continue working in our facility.”

O’Driscoll said the EFI did not take a stand on any particular unions or conflicts, however the program clearly had the potential to improve relations between workers and employers for their benefit and their companies.

“Our standard is unequivocal in affirming the right to association – no question at all about that - and I think why there’s been so much demand for better representation in places like Baja is that, as most people would recognize, wages and conditions could absolutely improve. 

“We do think the solution to those kinds of challenges is to bring growers and workers together from the start to figure out how they can raise the standard of living and worker conditions, and hopefully that avoids some of the violent conflict and breeds a culture of understanding from the get-go.”

At the time of writing there have not yet been any South American operations certified under the scheme, however O’Driscoll and Rivera both think that could change soon.

“We’re going to Chile to do our first desk audit and gap analysis for one of our Chilean [blueberry] growers. That will happen in December, and from there we will lay out our plan for certification,” Rivera said.



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