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What Consumers Need to Know About Organic Food

Katie Bezrouch • Sep 22, 2008

In Eastern Oregon resides the headquarters of a major beef conglomerate, Beef Northwest.  They produce meat that is sold under the “Country Natural Beef” (CNB) label. The cows raised to produce this beef are brought up by small family farmers who allow the cattle access to pasture for the first 16-18 months of their lives. After that, they are sold to CNB. They are shipped to a feedlot, and fattened on a mix of corn, potato, and alfalfa feed (which cannot be guaranteed to be GMO free) for the remaining three months of their lives.

These feedlots have been under scrutiny in the past by organic food advocates, for administering illegal quantities of drugs to their animals. Now things are heating up again, this time the focus is on the workers.

Beef Northwest has been accused of sexual and racial discrimination in their hiring practices on three separate occasions. The company also has no unionized feedlots in the country which has attributed to a slew of complaints that they are violating the rights of workers. A policy analyst at the Farmworker Support Committee has this to say about organic farming in America,

“The exploitative conditions that farmworkers face in the U.S. are abysmal — it’s a human-rights crisis,” said Richard Mandelbaum, policy analyst at the Farmworker Support Committee. “In terms of wages and labor rights, there’s really no difference between organic and conventional.”

So far, Beef Northwest has refused to acknowledge any efforts their employees are making to unionize, and are stalling the continued efforts. Organizers from the United Farm Workers (UFW) want a check card process, where workers are able to sign union cards while a neutral third-party overseas the process. The owners of Beef Northwest, however, are continuing to push for a secret ballot vote, in which workers vote anonymously. I probably don’t have to say it, but this process is just a little sketchy.

With few full-time, year-round jobs available in East Oregon Beef Northwest has no problem receiving job applicants and therefore still holds the upper-hand in the dispute. There employees are expected to work 12 to 14 hour days, including company recognized holidays. This practice is understandably taxing on the personal lives of the workers.

As a result of the harsh conditions, in 2007;

“the UFW sent a letter to owners of Beef Northwest informing them that a majority of their workers had authorized us to represent them”

Then a week later,

“Beef NW’s attorney agreed to meet with us and verbally agreed not to engage in any anti-union activities. However, workers soon reported an orchestrated campaign of threats and intimidation. It became apparent that Beef NW had no intention of negotiating a resolution, but instead had launched an anti-union campaign in an effort to undermine worker support for the UFW.”

It’s clear that the “secret ballot” election process is not only undemocratic, but unfair. Workers shouldn’t be bullied and pressured at their jobs because they want to stand up for their rights.

The labor union dispute has taken the spotlight in the leftist media since Senator Obama took the issue under his wing. He wrote a letter to John Wilson urging him to “negotiate with your employees’ chosen bargaining agent, the United Farm Workers.”

Action needs to be taken if there is any hope for their work conditions to be improved. It’s time Beef Northwest heard from the stores that sell their products and the consumers who buy them. Whole Foods is the primary retailer for Beef Northwest - send Whole Food a letter today explaining that if the organic farmworkers in Oregon have a problem, we all have a problem.

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