Tips to reduce food waste during the pandemic and beyond

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

The food waste epidemic in America has increased with each generation. Food has become cheaper than ever and we throw out millions of tons of food, while 37.2 million Americans are food insecure, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The National Consumers League (NCL) has been an early leader in calling attention to this problem. In 2016, NCL and the Keystone Policy Center hosted a Food Waste Summit, which focused on Food Waste Landscape and how it impacts the consumer. The USDA estimates that we waste 30-40 percent of our food supply. In 2015, the USDA joined the U.S. Environment Protection Agency to set a goal to cut America’s food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.

NCL helped to launch Further with Food: Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions in 2017. NCL, along with 12 organizations, joined this online hub to exchange information and solutions towards the national goal of cutting food waste. The initiative focuses on best practices for preventing food loss and waste; providing educational materials; research results and information on existing government, business, and community.

Sadly, during the pandemic, some farmers have resorted to dumping milk and plowing crops under because schools, restaurants, and universities that usually purchase large quantities of food are closed. Dana Gunders, executive Director of ReFED- Rethink Food Waste, recently noted that “people are throwing out less food in their homes, but more food is going to waste throughout the supply chain.” Gunders was recently interviewed on NPR about COVID-19 and food waste.

Gunders offered a number of tips regarding food waste:

  • Consumers are making fewer trips to grocery stores during the pandemic, which makes it easy to adopt better practices that help reduce waste at home. Consumers are planning meals and thinking through what they want to eat and need to buy. Those who meal plan waste less food.
  • Households should do a better job storing food, which helps to reduce food waste. Putting items in correct packages, storing them properly, and freezing what you are not ready to use extends the life of many items. Fresh herbs and asparagus do great in a jar of water in the fridge, and avocados can be stored in the refrigerator once ripe. Fruit does best in a crisper drawer set to “low” or slightly cracked open.
  • “Use by” dates indicate the ideal time to consume the product, but as Dana says, “if you see the words ‘best by’ or ‘best if used by,’ those are foods you can eat well past the date as long as they look fine, taste fine, and smell fine.”

Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system with a focus on sustainable agriculture, also highlights recommendations for reducing food waste:

  • Revive older food. Soak wilting veggies in ice water to re-crisp them. Un-stale bread, crackers, tortilla chips by toasting them in the oven for 1-2 minutes
  • Instead of throwing away leftovers, think about using them in a new recipe. For example, use your over-ripe bananas to make a tasty banana muffin, banana fritters, or smoothies with milk, ice, or other fruit.

The USDA recommends consumers consider donating food they can’t use to hunger relief organizations, shelters, etc. so that it can be used to feed people in need. And food that is inedible can be recycled into other products such as compost, worm castings, bioenergy, animal feed, bio plastics, and clothing.

USDA and EPA created the food recovery hierarchy (at right) to show the most effective ways to address food waste.

Food waste is always a challenge, but during Covid-19, we can employ some useful strategies. With so many Americans food insecure and people around the world facing dangerous food scarcity, it’s incumbent on all of us to treasure the food our farmers grow, honor it, and use it to feed our families.

Sweetened with what? Lack of transparency and misleading claims make reducing added sugars confusing

Many of us are probably trying to heed the advice of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reduce our consumption of added sugars. FDA has made “Added Sugars” content per serving a mandatory line on the Nutrition Facts label and has established a Daily Value of 50g of added sugars based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. FDA’s actions, however, have had some unintended consequences.

The agency’s decision to include “Added Sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label has created a marketing incentive for food and beverage manufacturers to replace added sugars with alternative or substitute sweeteners.  Leading brand name products bear prominent claims such as “No Added Sugars,” “Zero Sugar,” and “Reduced Sugars,” implying that the new product is healthier than the original without disclosing how the sugar has been reduced. As detailed in a recent Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) letter and an industry citizen’s petition filed with the FDA (Docket No. FDA-2020-P-1478), consumers have little idea that when they purchase a no/reduced sugar product, they may be buying a food that contains alternative sweeteners, highly processed, or artificial substances.

Most of us following the FDA’s advice aren’t looking to load up on combinations of new-fangled sweetening agents, sugar alcohols and other synthetic substances. CSPI’s January 9, 2020 letter asks that FDA enforce standards for nutrient content claims related to added or reduced sugar. We support that request.

The petition was filed by the Sugar Association, whose members are clearly concerned about competition from alternative sweeteners. But their complaint to the FDA makes a strong case for transparency by citing products that make no/reduced added sugars on the front label, but fail to disclose that sugars have been replaced by other sweeteners—many unfamiliar, some artificial, and some with known glycemic index effects. For example:

  • Rebel Ice Cream claims “No Sugar Added” but is sweetened with Erythritol, Chicory Root Fiber, Vegetable Glycerin, and Monk Fruit;
  • Kool-Aid Jammers claim “Zero Sugar” but are sweetened with Sucralose and Acesulfame Potassium;
  • Oikos Greek Yogurt claims “No Added Sugar and No Artificial Sweeteners” but contains Stevia and Chicory Root Fiber;
  • Quest Nutrition’s Hero Blueberry Cobbler Bar claims “1g” of sugar but is sweetened with Allulose, Erythritol, Sucralose, and Steviol Glycosides (Stevia);
  • Snack Pack Juicy Gels claim “Sugar Free” but are sweetened with Sucralose;
  • ONE Maple Glazed Doughnut Bar claims “1g” of sugar but is sweetened with Maltitol, Vegetable Glycerin, and Sucralose;
  • Snack Pack Chocolate Pudding Cups claim “Sugar Free” but are sweetened with Sorbitol, Maltitol, Sucralose, and Acesulfame Potassium;
  • Welch’s Fruit Snacks claim “Reduced Sugar” but are sweetened with Chicory Root Fiber and Maltitol Syrup;

The petition, among other steps, urges FDA to require that such substances be clearly disclosed as a “sweetener” in the ingredient list. That step seems reasonable to insure transparency and ensure that consumers know what they are purchasing.

The petition also calls for action against outright misleading claims regarding sugar content. The CSPI letter and industry petition blows the whistle on deceptive claims like these:

  • The reduced sugar version of Skippy peanut butter has 1/3 less sugar than its traditional counterpart but has more calories and fat per serving than the regular version. Despite having 1g less added sugars, the reformulated product provides 20 more calories per 2 tablespoon serving. The claim on the front label is misleading because it implies that the reformulated version is healthier due to the reduction in added sugars when the reformulated version is higher in calories.
  • Welch’s Fruit Snacks Reduced Sugar version claims 25 percent less sugar than the original version. The claim is predicated upon a reduction in the serving size of the reformulated version of the product. The original version has a serving size of 25.5g while the Reduced Sugar version has decreased to 22.7g.
  • Oikos Triple Zero blended Greek Yogurt makes a “0 Added Sugar” claim but has more calories per serving than the company’s regular Greek yogurt. The zero added sugars product, which is sweetened with Stevia Leaf Extract, has 120 calories per serving while the company’s original version has 110 calories per serving.

Statements like these turn the supermarket aisle into a minefield of misleading claims that are not good for consumers who are trying to sort out health values. We urge the FDA to prohibit misleading labeling of alternative sweeteners in processed foods and beverages and to grant the citizens’ petition for greater transparency in food labeling when it comes to these artificial sweeteners.

 

Keeping meatpacking workers safe in the age of COVID-19: A view from the front lines

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Meatpacking plants across America have become hot spots for COVID-19. Many plants have had to close due to the rapid increase in cases, with hundreds of workers contracting COVID-19 and a tragic number dying from the deadly virus.

Many packing plants have reopened over the past couple of weeks but the question still remains:  what measures have been put in place to address working conditions?

We interviewed someone who has firsthand knowledge of what is happening on the inside.  Robyn Robbins is the director of occupational health and safety at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). She has worked for UFCW for the past 24 years and prior to this position she was the Assistant Director for 18 years. UFCW is one of the largest labor unions in America. The Union represents workers in meatpacking, poultry, food processing industry, retail grocery, and healthcare—all considered to be essential workers.

Robbins told us: “Many workers are getting sick and dying, and the industry has a history of exploiting workers.” Indeed, the meat industry does not have an admirable record on protecting workers from hazards long before COVID-19. Meatpacking plants on average can employ up to 5,000 workers under one roof, and the conditions are very challenging.  Workers work closely on production lines, sometimes “shoulder to shoulder,” and the areas where they congregate off the line—such as break rooms and locker rooms—can get crowded.  The virus can spread quite easily under these conditions. And the industry has not done enough to allow workers to socially distance both on the production floor and off, or to notify the union when workers are infected, and who else has been exposed, so that the spread of the virus can be contained.

Even amid the pandemic, the demand for meat and poultry is constant. As a result, meatpacking plants have reopened, albeit not at full capacity.  Robbins noted that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)—the federal agency that regulates safety and healt—has taken a backseat and has not done on-site inspections. “There are no safety standards that regulate COVID-19 and no clear requirements or regulations that companies are required to follow and therefore there is no way to force companies to actually take precautionary measures recommended by the CDC to protect workers,” Robbins said. She went onto say that “OSHA is the only Federal government entity that can require companies to do anything to protect workers during this pandemic.”

UFCW local union representatives and stewards are in the plants and work hard to get companies to do the right thing to protect workers through the collective bargaining process. “The challenge is trying to get the companies to space workers out on the production floor, which does require some slowing down of line speeds; some of the companies are doing the right thing by spacing workers out but many are not, and are relying too much on protective equipment and plastic barriers, which have not been proven to offer any protection, when it is really about putting more distance between people,” Robbins told us. Social distancing in break rooms is another challenge. Companies have made some effort to effectively separate tables and are putting tents outside for workers to take breaks in those designated areas. They are also staggering shift times in order to reduce the number of workers in break areas at any one time.

Robbins noted: “not all companies are testing workers when they should be, which is a major problem.” UFCW is calling on meatpacking plants to test workers, but companies are reluctant. “If companies worked more closely with the union, they would collectively be able to come up with strategies to isolate workers, redistribute the work, and be more effective over all in addressing the issues relating to COVID-19 and meatpacking workers.”

UFCW doesn’t agree that reopening of plants should take place where there have been outbreaks and where unsafe working conditions exist, unless the companies have taken the steps necessary to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. “The companies that did shut down made the right decision to sanitize and clean the plants,” said Robbins. “Some have also started screening workers, set up hand sanitizing stations, providing masks, spacing out common areas, giving workers face shields and putting up plastic barriers on the floor between workers where it is possible – although again, there is no data to show that plastic barriers do anything to stem the spread of the virus.”

But this is still not enough. UFCW wants to see workplaces reconfigured so that workers can be six feet apart, both on the production floor and off. This is crucial for stemming the spread of the virus.

Robbins said sick leave policies vary tremendously. “There are 500 local unions around the country, and the UFCW has been pushing for 14 days’ sick leave, successfully bargaining for this in contracts. Some companies are using a combination of different ways to allow workers to stay home when sick, many suspending their normal sick leave policy and making them more flexible. Some companies use a combination of paid sick days and short-term disability so that workers can stay home to recover and then return to work in a safe way. But not all companies are doing this; a few are even revoking paid sick leave policies that were in place at the beginning of this crisis.  This only will result in sick workers coming to work, because they have to in order to earn a living, and the virus will continue to spread, both inside plants, and outside in their communities.  It is bad corporate policy.”

Due to the thousands of cases of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants and many plants not operating at full capacity, meat shortages may continue. In closing, we so appreciate UFCW representing worker interests and Robyn Robbins’ service on NCL’s Board of Directors.

Observing World Food Safety Day: Food safety, foodborne illnesses, and the pandemic.

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Happy World Food Safety Day! June 7 is a special day designated by the United Nations to draw global attention to the health consequences of contaminated food and water.

The concept of food safety encompasses all practices that are used to keep our food safe and relies on the joint efforts of everyone involved in our food supply. “Everyone” refers to all actors in the food chain, farmers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, caterers, and many more. Laws and regulations are in place to reduce the risk of contamination under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is transforming the nation’s food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. There are more than 250 types of foodborne diseases, caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Some common foodborne illnesses that are found in our country include:

Norovirus: a contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. You can get norovirus from:

  • Direct contact with an infected person
  • Consuming contaminated food or water
  • Touching contaminated surfaces, then putting unwashed hands in your mouth

Salmonella: lives in the intestines of people and animals. can come from infection from a variety of sources, including:

  • Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water
  • Touching infected animals, their feces, or their environment.
  • The bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 240 deaths in the United States every year.

Clostridium perfringens: a spore-forming bacterium that is found in the environment as well as in the intestines of humans and animals. It is also commonly found in raw meat and poultry, beef, poultry, gravies and dried of pre-cooked foods

  • Infections often occur when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving. Outbreaks often happen in institutions, such as hospitals, school cafeterias, prisons, and nursing homes, or at events with catered food.

Campylobacter: the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States.

  • Causes 1.5 million illnesses each year.
  • caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or consuming something that has come into contact with raw or undercooked poultry, seafood and untreated drinking water.

Staphylococcus (Staph): a gastrointestinal illness caused by eating foods contaminated with these toxins.

  • symptoms include sudden nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps, diarrhea.
  • Not washing hands if food is contaminated with Staph, the bacteria can multiply in the food
  • Foods that are not cooked after handling, such as sliced meats, puddings, pastries and sandwiches are especially risky if contaminated with Staph.

As we note efforts worldwide to ensure that our human food supply is safe, we would be remiss in 2020 if we did not note the increased food safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the CDC, there is currently no evidence to support transmission of COVID associated with food. It is important that consumers wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds when handling food. The CDC highlights that, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on many surfaces, there is likely low risk of spread from food products or packaging. The CDC also reinforces the need to avoid cross-contamination of foods in preparing food safely by keeping raw meat separate from other foods, cooking meat to the recommended temperature, which kills harmful bacteria and ensuring that perishable foods are refrigerated.

It is also important to always rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water, including melons and other produce with skins and rinds. Scrub the produce firmly with a clean brush, also remember to clean the lids of canned goods before opening them, says the FDA. Washing produce and cooking meats, fish, and poultry thoroughly is key during this pandemic, especially with so many people preparing their meals at home. Our message to consumers and restaurants and anyone who handles food: as we mark World Food Safety Day, follow these important food safety practices to help prevent foodborne illness and stay healthy and safe during these uncertain times.

A prescription for surviving COVID-19 nutritionally intact: eat well, get sunshine

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Overeating or eating poorly during this pandemic is understandable. However, a healthy diet is vital for you and your family’s health. As most people are aware, a healthy diet consists of protein, fruits, vegetables, and grains and is low in salt, unsaturated fats, and free sugars. But there’s more to it than that.

While it’s important to have protein in one’s diet, it is not always necessary to get protein from meat products. One of the best sources is legumes (as known as beans) such as white peas, kidney beans, moong, masoor, chickpeas, lentils, and many others according to Thrive Global. Consider whipping up a salad, making tasty lentil soup with carrots and cilantro, or a chickpea curry to quench your taste buds! Preparing a simple, easy, and delicious meal doesn’t have to be hard, you can find many recipes and cooking guides on YouTube or Google Search.

Eating healthy sometimes means breaking bad habits, so the first step is by keeping healthy and nutritious snacks around, such as cheese with an apple, hummus and carrots, or nuts and dried fruit. Eating yogurt once a day is a good habit to get into along with fruit and cereal. If you’re full from a good breakfast, you are less likely to snack on junk food. Thrive Global noted that certain bacteria are highly recommended to keep you healthy and fit.

Remember to top up on your fruits! They are a rich source of minerals and vitamin C, which is especially good for boosting your immune system during COVID-19. Rangers, Apples, kiwis, and persimmons are just a few fruits rich in vitamin C. Kale, brussels sprout, broccoli, and parsley are also on the list. Vitamin D is also important in the immune response to COVID-19 due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Vitamin D is usually sourced by the action of sunlight on the body but since many of us are staying at home due to the lockdown and unable to get the necessary daily exposure, we must depend on vitamin D rich food sources such as; salmon, swordfish, oysters, mushrooms, and eggs, according to 10FAQ Health. And these vitamin D rich foods can make for very delicious dishes like garlic butter baked salmon or chargrilled oysters. Check out recipe sites like Food Network for more meal ideas.

Eating healthy is particularly important during the time of COVID-19. By incorporating foods of color—carrots, beans, various cheeses, kale, and more—you can make delicious dishes. Try new recipes and enjoy a healthy nutritious meal. And remember, eating healthy contributes to the boosting of the immune system. Let us all try to stay healthy and safe during COVID-19!

Alcohol consumption during COVID-19: What the consumer needs to know

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

While most people are stuck at home in America during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have increased their alcohol purchase and consumption. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly stated at the end of prohibition, “what America needs right now is a drink.” American’s are now facing another crisis, a pandemic and are adhering to this call.

According to a survey done by the research firm Nielsen, off-premise sales of alcohol spiked nationwide following stay-at-home orders. A new study from Alcohol.org stated that 1 in 3 Americans are drinking alcohol while working from home during COVID-19 lockdown. About 32 percent of Americans are more likely to be drinking while working from home, with 36 percent of men and 26 percent of women drinking while working.

In 2018, National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) disclosed data showing that 86.3 percent of Americans ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70 percent reported they drank in the past year; 55.3 percent reported that they drank in the past month. NSDUH also indicated in 2018 that 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older had Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States. This includes 9.2 million men and 5.3 million women. The survey went onto disclose an estimated 401,000 youth ages from 12 to 17 had Alcohol Use Disorder.

According to Healthline, Americans expressed that their daily routine has changed and many have faced unemployed. This increased uncertainty, anxiety, and fear brought on by the pandemic has resulted in binge drinking.

What is defined as “binge drinking”? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines it as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.

Binge drinking has some serious risks and is associated with many health problems, including:

  • sudden infant death syndrome;
  • obesity;
  • chronic diseases such as high blood pressures, stroke, heart disease, and liver disease;
  • cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon;
  • memory and learning problems;
  • alcohol use disorders;
  • and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

The CDC stated in 2010 that alcohol misuse cost Americans an estimated $249.0 billion. These costs resulted from losses in workplace productivity, health care expenditures, criminal justice costs, and other expenses. Binge drinking was responsible for 77 percent of these costs or $191 billion.

Many consumers are unaware that the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has not mandated “Alcohol Facts” on alcoholic beverages. Consumers have access to labeling information that contains nutritional facts on every single thing they consume except alcoholic beverages. As a result, consumers have little means of knowing the most basic information about alcoholic beverages. At the National Consumers League (NCL), we think the need for alcohol labeling is long overdue. Over the last two decades, NCL has petitioned the federal government for standardized “Alcohol Facts” and, this summer, will be calling for action on Alcoholic Beverage Labeling. Join your voice with ours by signing the forthcoming petition addressed to TTB and demand the drafting and implementation of rules that mandate a standardized “Alcohol Facts” label on all alcoholic beverages. It’s time to end the confusion so consumers can make informed and responsible purchasing and consumption decisions.

New study confirms what we already knew: child labor in agriculture is dangerous

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

There is some welcome but scary new research out about the impact of child labor on child farmworkers. At an online meeting of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), co-chaired by the National Consumers League, last week, we heard from two researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who told us about findings that came from a survey their team had conducted involving 202 child farmworkers between the ages of 10 and 17 in North Carolina. The child laborers worked in about a dozen crops, but most recently in four: tobacco, berries, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes—with tobacco being the most common by a large margin.

Alarming to the many of the advocates in the room, Dr. Thomas Arcury, director of the Center for Worker Health at Wake Forest, said that the survey results revealed a “substantial number of injuries” reported in the prior year. Two-thirds reported an injury of some kind, while more than a quarter of child workers  had suffered an injury the researchers considered traumatic during the year. Nearly a quarter had cut themselves in the fields, and muscular-skeletal injuries were common—shoulder pain being the most typical—as were dermatological injuries, which included rashes, burns, and sunburns.

Only 4.5 percent of injured workers received medical care. The same percent missed school because of their injuries. A higher percentage switched to different or easier tasks due to their injury.

The injuries were more commonly reported by older workers, migrant workers, and children who had worked fewer weeks. The reasons for higher injury rates for these types of workers can only be speculated at, suggested Arcury. Older workers may feel pressure to work at a faster pace, he speculated. Injured migrant children were much more likely to receive medical care by a large margin— 16.7 percent—versus 1.8 percent for non-migrant children. Similarly, they were more likely to miss school by a significant margin.

During Q&A, Dr. Arcury agreed with a question arguing that the “piece-rate” payment system (based on the idea that the more buckets of fruits or vegetables you fill and the faster you pick, the more you get paid) helps pressure workers to work to their maximum pace and was exploitative. “It’s absolutely inhumane,” he said.

Nearly half of the children in the survey suffered symptoms that correlated with heat-related illness, said fellow researcher Taylor Arnold, making it the primary negative aspect of doing farm work reported by the child survey respondents. Once again, older teens were more likely to report heat-related illness symptoms.

Nearly three in 10 reported dizziness from working in the heat. More than one in five reported sudden muscle cramps; one in 12 said they had nausea or vomited, 6.1 percent said they felt confused while working, and fainting was experienced by 1.8 percent.

In his presentation, Arnold quoted one 16-year-old describing tobacco work:

“Well it’s hot. It’s really hot, and you have to work with everybody’s pace so you won’t be left behind. And if you’re left behind, the boss man will like scream at you and just tell you to go faster or if not then he’s going to replace you with someone else.”

He quoted another 17-year-old tobacco worker who said her crew leader wouldn’t let her drink water despite the excessive heat. Another reported seeing a girl who had collapsed on the ground from heat.

A 15-year-old working in tomatoes told researchers:

“….sometimes…I feel like I’m really dizzy because of the sun. And there was – last year, the first day we got here, I got really, really dizzy. And I was going sideways. So I had to step out.”

The child workers said they engaged in numerous behaviors to avoid heat stress: they drank extra water, sought out shade, took extra breaks, changed work hours, went into air-conditioned areas (presumably breaks in automobiles), and changed work tasks. Of these, air-conditioned breaks seemed to have a contrary impact and was associated with suffering more heat-related symptoms, said Arnold. Those who reported taking more breaks had lower levels of heat-related illness. But, at times, there is a crew leader yelling at the workers to work harder and faster, so breaks are not exactly encouraged.

The presentation concluded with a recommendation that we at the CLC whole-heartedly agree with: Arcury supports closing the loopholes in U.S. child labor law that allow children to work at younger ages. “It’s hard to believe in 2020 that we have different rules for kids in farm work, despite it being such a hazardous sector,” he said.

The CLC works to advance federal legislation called the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety that would close these loopholes and extend legal protections to child workers in agriculture that are enjoyed by children who work in other sectors. We urge readers to call their Member of Congress and ask them to support CARE, H.R. 3394, by co-sponsoring it.

We also support legislation—appropriately named the Children Don’t Belong on Tobacco Farms Act—that would ban work by children in tobacco fields because of the risk of nicotine poisoning. Many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in a study published in 2014 reported symptoms that correlated with nicotine poisoning. We ask readers to call their Member of Congress and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 3229 in the House and S. 1283 in the Senate.

The new research by Tom Arcury and Taylor Arnold and their colleagues confirms our belief that agriculture is simply too dangerous a sector to have widespread exemptions to U.S. child labor law. The researchers found children as young as 10 working in conditions that are clearly dangerous. Let’s close those loopholes now and give child farmworkers the same protections that all other children enjoy.

Grocery stores and safety measures needed to protect workers and customers during COVID-19

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

It was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I decided to take a trip to Mom’s Organic Market (MOM’s) in College Park, Maryland. MOM’s CEO, Scott Nash, was the subject of NCL’s We Can Do This! podcast a few months ago because he is infamous for consuming food whose “sell by” date is expired and living to tell the tale.

As expected, the parking lot was partially empty due to many neighboring businesses being forced to close due to coronavirus. I exited my car, pulled my mask over my mouth and nose, and walked in. I was greeted by a store employee also wearing a mask. He politely asked me if I needed a cart, disinfected it, and handed it to me. As I entered the grocery store, there were two signs: one that highlighted measures “Helping Each Other” during COVID-19, and the other noted that it is mandatory by law to wear a mask. It was good to read that if you forgot your mask, Mom’s Organic Market may be able to provide you with a disposable version.

In the produce section, everyone was practicing social distancing and wearing masks. I continued my journey through the grocery store from aisle to aisle, picked up a few things that I needed for my pantry, and went to pay for my items. As my turn to check out was approaching, I decided to engage the staff member who was standing on the side guiding customers on social distancing. I introduced myself and asked if she was a manager, and she responded with enthusiasm that she was. I asked her a few questions regarding the safety measures MOM’s is taking during COVID-19 and whether any staff members at the College Park location had tested positive. She said no but that if any staff member does test positive for COVID-19 or presents a doctor’s note stating that they need to quarantine for 14 days because they have been exposed,  they will be given 14 days of paid sick leave. Also if they want to stay home for longer, they could choose to do so without being paid, but would not be terminated. She also told me that if any staff member comes to work feeling sick, they would be sent home. All staff members are outfitted with masks and gloves and protective glass at check out counters. It was reassuring to know the safety measures that Mom’s Organic is taking during COVID-19 to protect workers and customers.

The experience I had at Mom’s Organic Market was one that I could relate to at other grocery stores across Maryland. But to understand what other stores are doing, across the country, I embarked on creating a survey, which we distributed to NCL Board Members who reside in different States. The grocery stores patronized were Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Costco, and Gelson’s Market. According to our board, 80 percent of these grocery stores require that all customers are mandated by law to wear a mask while shopping. 13 percent of the grocery stores provide a mask if you do not have one. and 88 percent did not provide a mask. Among the stores, there is no mandated policy for customers to wear gloves while shopping. 89 percent of the grocery stores did not provide gloves to customers while 11 percent did. Regarding social distancing, 90 percent practice social distancing while 10 percent did not. 75 percent of grocery stores sanitized the carts and then handed a cart to the customer while 25 percent did not.

When asked the question: Does your preferred grocery store limit the number of customers that enter at each given time? 80 percent said yes while 20 percent said no. When asked if grocery store cashiers wear masks, 90 percent said yes and 10 percent said no. 70 percent of the grocery stores in this survey have a protective glass at the cashiers while 30 percent did not. 89 percent of the grocery stores have hand sanitizing stations for customer use while 11 percent did not. It is safe to conclude that most grocery stores are taking the necessary measure to protect customers and staff during COVID-19.

As luck would have it, the daughter of one of my NCL colleagues works at the Safeway bakery. I also talked to her about grocery store COVID-19 related safety precautions. She told me that each staff member at Safeway was provided with a mask, made of either medical or reusable cloth and that some staff who requested face shields were also provided with it. All cash registers were outfitted with protective glass and employees must practice social distancing—six feet apart.  Each hour, the intercom prompts workers to stop working and wash their hands while cashier wash their hands more frequently because they interact more with customers.

Safeway staff go through a checklist daily prior to their shift, with these questions asked:

Do you have any symptoms pertaining to COVID-19 or is there anyone in your family who has tested positive for COVID-19? If any staff member answers yes to any of the questions they are immediately sent home for 2 weeks of paid sick leave. Again, social distancing markers appear on floors at Safeway, and wipes are provided to sanitize shopping carts. Many of us visit grocery stores once or twice a week. It’s great to know that most of the grocery stores we visited or learned about are taking the necessary safety measures to protect workers and customers during COVID-19 and providing generous sick leave protections to ensure workers can afford to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.

How do we deal with the ‘ticking time bomb’ in agriculture?

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb,” the coronavirus and its potential impact on farmworkers—the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who pick our fruits and vegetables and provide other vital agricultural work. Farmworkers perform dirty, back-breaking work, are notoriously underpaid for it, and now face great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that National Consumers League (NCL) works with or supports—such as Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys—have spent weeks strategizing about ways to protect the community they know is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Advocates have reached out to administration officials and Congress for desperately needed resources to support impoverished farmworkers with little to show for it. Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages. The Trump Administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the United States to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down wages for farmworkers already living and working in the United States.

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to healthcare and, due to their poverty, often work through illness. The risks of an outbreak is especially great because workers often toil in close physical proximity to one another as they harvest, ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars, have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing, and often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants. The community is socially isolated from mainstream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work in the fields so that child labor can supplement their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which it founded and co-chairs, has committed to the fight to fix the broken child labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to begin performing hazardous work at age 16.

When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus.  Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty and that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more.

In some cases, farmworkers reported that the farmers they work for have not told them about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working. Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, including UFW and Justice for Migrant Women, are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely to know he or she has it and, therefore, very likely to keep working and infect their family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, Washington, according to a report in the Capital Press newspaper. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, 36 workers—more than half—tested positive!

The conditions faced by farmworkers are a “superconductor for the virus,” noted advocate Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a New York Times opinion piece, in which he concluded that “the U.S. food supply is in danger.”

The current circumstances reminded Asbed of a previous crisis: “A century ago in ‘The Jungle,’ Upton Sinclair wrote about how the teeming tenements and meatpacking houses where workers lived and labored were perfect breeding grounds for tuberculosis as it swept the country. Now there is a new pathogenic threat and the workers who feed us are once again in grave danger,” said Asbed, adding that the “ two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread—social distancing and self-isolation—are effectively impossible in farmworker communities” because farmworkers live and work so closely together.

The looming food crisis is not just an American phenomenon, reported the New York Times. “The world has never faced a hunger emergency like this, experts say. It could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year,” noted reporter Abdi Latif Dahir. “The coronavirus pandemic has brought hunger to millions of people around the world. National lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes—leaving millions to worry how they will get enough to eat,” added Dahir.

An article in The Washington Post warned that, in the United States, the farm–to-grocery distribution system is breaking down under the strain of the virus and that farmers are plowing in fields of crops. The Trump administration has announced a $19 billion plan to buy agricultural products and get them to food banks, which are experiencing shortages and, in some cases, mile-long lines of cars waiting for help.

In the United States, the federal government’s responses have been focused on helping farmers—which is fine; we all want farmers to be helped—but we cannot forget or neglect the needs of desperately poor farmworkers. In the absence of federal aid, some states are working to protect vulnerable farmworker populations. To help achieve social-distancing, Washington State has set housing rules requiring guest workers have double the current space.

Wisconsin issued similar rules requiring six-foot social distancing for farmworkers as they work in the fields, ride on buses, and sleep in grower-provided housing. The plan mandates protections for farmworkers who acquire the virus and calls for fines of up to $500 for violations.

In an April 15 letter, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “take swift and decisive action to publicize and implement a plan to immediately and equitably stabilize the agriculture industry, and to support agriculture producers, food processors, workers, and local food systems, regardless of the size of the operation. This plan must include resources, guidance, and protection for these workers,” Wolf continued. “Every sector of agriculture, food processing and distribution, retail, grocery stores, and farmers markets are negatively impacted by COVID-19 and need support.”

“The closing of many child care facilities has meant many farmworker women must stay home with children, which translates to lost income and fewer workers for farmers,” noted Cleo Rodriguez, a CLC-member who heads the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.

“The closing of schools may mean that younger teens are increasingly pulled into agricultural child labor,” suggested Norma Flores López, who heads the CLC’s efforts to protect farmworker children. “We’re very concerned with the number of children that are going to be working in the fields,” said Flores López, adding that child labor increases children’s risk of exploitation, wage theft, and sexual exploitation.

Concerned about these developments, the CLC wrote letters this week to several appropriators and the Committee on Agriculture, asking for additional nutritional and childcare resources for farmworker families.

We all need to eat. It’s incumbent upon us to protect farmworkers and our food supply chain. “It’s time to step up,” said Rodriguez.

Here’s what consumers can do to help protect farmworkers in these dire circumstances:

  • Sign the Food Chain Workers Alliance to urge Congress to include resources for food chain workers: https://tinyurl.com/yddvcm2w.
  • Sign UFW’s petition urging Congress to stop Trump administration efforts to lower wages for agricultural guest workers: https://tinyurl.com/y9jgtsow.
  • Make masks and send them to farmworker groups in your state.
  • Urge congressional representatives to fund farmworker relief efforts.
  • Donate to any of the excellent farmworker groups we’ve mentioned in this piece.

Chipotle workers welcome company’s settlement with DOJ but say more safety reforms needed

April 23, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

NEW YORK–Chipotle workers on Wednesday welcomed the news that the Department of Justice imposed on the company the largest criminal fine ever for a food safety case but said the company needs to make more reforms to address the core issues that are driving worker abuses and violations of food safety protocols.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has sickened many people across the US, essential workers like those at Chipotle and other chains have risked their health and their lives to provide food to their communities. These workers say that long-standing issues at Chipotle are putting them at risk.

In February, the National Consumers League and SEIU 32BJ released a report following an in-depth investigation with dozens of Chipotle workers throughout New York City documenting widespread worker abuses that directly affect customer safety.

“I am glad that the Justice Department has held Chipotle accountable for their actions that have put people at risk,” said Luis Torres, a worker at a Chipotle store in Manhattan. “But even as recent as the beginning of March we had to walk off the job together to fight back against managers pressuring crewmembers to work sick while the Coronavirus crisis was escalating. We’re pressured to make the food faster and aren’t always allowed to take the proper safety precautions. We are speaking out because we just want to stay safe and keep our customers safe.”

The government’s announcement resonates with the report’s findings, including managers pressuring workers to work sick and violations of food safety protocol and Chipotle’s own policies. For example, many workers reported manager pressure not to wash their hands during rush periods so as not to slow the line.

The report also called attention to the ineffective food safety audits, which now must be improved per the deferred prosecution agreement. The food safety audits and Chipotle’s paid sick day policy were part of a set of reforms put in place in 2016 to win back the trust of Chipotle customers following earlier illness outbreaks at Chipotle but according to workers, audits only happen quarterly, meaning that once a store is audited, the manager knows they won’t get audited again until the next quarter.

“We applaud the work of US Attorney’s Office for working with the FDA and for holding Chipotle accountable with a substantial fine,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “This should be a wake-up call for Chipotle. For years, its management incentive practices have put profits first, endangering the safety and health of customers and workers repeatedly. Now more than ever when food safety is so critical, Chipotle needs a massive overhaul of its management and business practices to put consumer and worker safety first.”

New York City workers have also reported retaliation from managers if they use their sick days.

“Courageous Chipotle workers have stood up to demand the company live up to its responsibilities to protect the health and safety of customers and employees,” said 32BJ President Kyle Bragg. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made this more important than ever. We are proud to support workers in their fight for food safety, stable jobs with lower turnover and respect for their essential work in the community.”

Workers, 32BJ and the NCL are demanding Chipotle fundamentally reform their policies to promote worker and consumer safety and ensure that workers have a real voice on the job through their own organization. When workers have the power to protect themselves, the public is better protected as well.

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About 32BJ SEIU

With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 85,000 in New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.

About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.