lettuce pickers

You probably don’t expect the fruits and vegetables on fast food menus to be the freshest. But did you know that one company, Taylor Farms, is the world’s largest producer of cut salads, fruits and vegetables? That might not seem like much of a surprise in this day and age where corporations own much of our food industry. But for the farm workers sort 0f employed by Taylor Farms, here’s why it really matters.

Red Lobster, Olive Garden, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Long John Silver’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and even Chipotle are just some of the restaurants that rely on Taylor Farms for fresh produce for their menu items. So do most major grocery chains including Safeway, Raley’s, Ralphs and Kroger, as well as big-box retailers Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco and Target. But calling this produce “fresh” might be a misnomer.

In a recent expose published on the Huffington Post, a former Taylor Farms employee recalls “pigeon feces, dead pigeons, dead bats and black mold,” in a Taylor Farms facility in central California.

The sanitation issues though aren’t the real problem, even though they really are problems. They stem from labor issues and Taylor Farms’ reliance on temporary laborers and contractors, particularly farm workers. “Currently, these employees aren’t considered Taylor workers – instead, they are employees of the subcontractors who supply them to Taylor as though they were so many spare parts,” Bill Raden and Gary Cohn wrote for Capital and Main.

The company, which had sales of more than $1.8 billion in 2012, paints a bucolic picture of being a sustainable farm-to-table brand, but according to Raden and Cohn, the company “whose triple-washed packs of kale and vegetable medleys embody an enlightened corporate mission to celebrate organic agriculture, food freshness and dietary health,” is anything but.

Of the nearly 1,000 Taylor Farms employees in Tracy, Calif., about two-thirds work for subcontractors as “temporary” employees, even though some of these people have worked for Taylor Farms for a decade.They can be fired at the drop of a foreman’s hat for questioning an instruction or calling in sick,” explained Raden and Cohn. It’s a system that has “radically changed the fundamental expectation that hard work will be rewarded with fair compensation.”

Similar labor issues surrounding our nation’s fruit and vegetable supplies were outlined in the books “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit” [Barry Estabrook] and “The American Way of Eating” [Tracie McMillan].

Taylor Farms is a central link in the country’s food chain, explain Raden and Cohn. “The system of food production and distribution from field to drive-through window and supermarket shelf.”

We can’t call food sustainable if it only takes into consideration the environment. People also need to be able to sustain themselves at their occupation.

On the front end of the fast food industry, there have been numerous protests and issues surrounding unlivable wages for employees—some of whom, like the ‘temporary’ contractors for Taylor Farms, have been at their jobs for ten years.

Fast food is changing. Chipotle recently removed GMOs. Panera Bread, Subway and Chick-fil-A are removing artificial additives. But these steps might never be enough if these companies don’t remove their drive-thru mentality when it comes to workers rights.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Related on Organic Authority

5 Healthy Food Lessons Learned from ‘The American Way of Eating’

Trader Joe’s Firm on Refusal to Support Fair Wages for Tomato Pickers

The Dark Side of Dollar Menus: Fast-Food Workers Fight for Fair Wages

Image: Alex E. Proimos