Likely, when you buy tomatoes or other produce from your local supermarket, you don’t think twice about the “Made in Mexico” sticker before peeling it off and washing them. But the first installment of a three-part Los Angeles Times long-form investigative piece about harsh conditions on Mexican mega-farms, under the overall title "Product of Mexico," details exactly why that sticker on your tomato has a deeper meaning than you might have thought.
In recent years, the value of farm exports from Mexico to the U.S. has tripled to $7.6 billion, and overall, half of all tomatoes consumed in this country are grown in Mexico. Corporations like Walmart, Whole Foods, Darden (owner of Olive Garden, among other chains), Subway, and Safeway, are singled out in the Times series, as well as major distribution and exporting firms like Triple H, with facilities in Culiacan, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz., who all have strict labor codes for their suppliers. But Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Barletti found, after visiting several of Mexico’s largest export produce farms, that working conditions are deplorable: farm hands often work behind barbed wire at “rat-infested camps, often without beds or functioning toilets” for weeks or months without pay.
“I’ve seen these labor camps before in Mexico," Marosi told The Daily Meal, "but as I began to peel back the layers, I started to understand how the farm economy works and how it’s perfectly designed to exploit these people. It’s not immediately apparent to the naked eye. We’d document what we saw and heard, and then promptly be kicked out, sometimes within five minutes.”
The U.S. government can't do much directly about these appalling working conditions, but as the Times points out, supermarket and fast-food chains can refuse to buy from purveyors who violate their codes. But they may be unaware of these labor practices, because they often buy produce from middlemen who in turn buy from the mega-farms.
"They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don't take care of us," Japolina Jaimez, a field hand at Rene Produce, a grower of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, Mexico, told Marosi. "Look at how we live."
The worst part, Marosi told us, was the ignorance of American companies who supposedly oversaw the labor practices of their distributors. “These farms are generating millions of dollars for U.S. companies, and their workers’ basic needs aren’t being met,” he said. I was at the camp where Walmart walked through themselves and it’s almost like, ‘Did you see what I saw? Did you even talk to these people?’ It just begs the question, how does this happen?”
Nonetheless, both Walmart and Triple H were appalled when Marosi informed them of his findings. "It completely violates our principles," said Heriberto Vlaminck, Triple H's general director. Walmart released a statement reading in part "We care about the men and women in our supply chain…[but] we won't catch every instance when people do things wrong."
“Product of Mexico” is a series. You can check back for the next installment Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.