Hamburger Series, Part 2: Considering Your Burger’s Tomato

A Thin Slice

Lettuce and Tomato?” This burger-ordering exchange is so automatic, that we tend to answer it without thinking.  After a quick “yes” or “no,” we are on to the decision over French fries. There are, however, ethical implications in that two-second exchange.  The lettuce and tomato, while often considered a standard component of the burger, is often not included on the value-meal burgers offered at many fast food restaurants. These two items are unique among the other burger components in that they are fresh items that have a more limited shelf life. That adds cost. I’d like to consider the ethical aspects of those costs specific to the tomato in this post.

The tomato on your burger is most likely from Florida or Mexico. The vast majority of domestically grown tomatoes are from either California or Florida, but California grows tomatoes that are used in processed tomato products (like your ketchup), while the fresh sliced tomatoes on your burger are grown in Florida.  The two types of tomatoes are bred with distinct characteristics, so, for instance, the tougher tomatoes in California are able to stand up to machine harvesting, whereas the more tender tomatoes in Florida must be picked by human hands.

Whose hands are doing the picking? According to The National Agricultural Worker’s Survey, 77% of US farm-workers are foreign-born, and the vast majority of the workers–75%– have come from Mexico. These workers average $7.25 per hour and earn, on average, between $10,000 and $12, 499 a year. While their salaries frequently fall below the US poverty line ($11, 900 as of 2010), these numbers represent a recent improvement, which was the result of persistent efforts that pressured numerous fast-food conglomerates to agree to price increases on tomatoes and to demand humane treatment of farm-workers.

The story begins in 2001, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began a boycott of Taco Bell on behalf of Florida farm-workers who harvested tomatoes. Immokalee is home to Florida’s largest community of farm-workers, many of whom work on tomato farms. The community-based CIW instigated their boycott because “the corporate food industry as a whole… purchases a tremendous volume of fruits and vegetables, leveraging its buying power to demand the lowest possible prices from its suppliers, in turn exerting a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in these suppliers’ operations.”(1)

CIW choose to boycott Taco Bell because they are owned by YUM Brands, which is the world’s largest restaurant company. The boycott lasted four years, and civic, religious, union, and educational groups joined the farm-workers in their effort. Sympathetic Americans stopped ordering at Taco Bell, and students started movements to kick the chain off of college and high school campuses. By 2005, Taco Bell’s YUM Brands was ready to sign a deal.

YUM Brands agreed to pay one cent more per pound of tomatoes, but with the stipulation that the added cost would go directly to the farm-worker’s salaries. This resulted in a roughly 75% increase in wages for Florida farm workers picking tomatoes for Taco Bell (they had been receiving roughly 1.3 cents per pound, or 40-45 cents for every 32-pound bucket).(2) Furthermore, Taco Bell agreed to buy only from suppliers who followed this policy, and they began a monthly monitoring program to ensure it was followed.

The deal not only improved wages, but also addressed human rights. The farms rely heavily on immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, and as such, they lack the basic rights to protection under the law that US citizens rely upon to maintain a just society.  The deal included provisions that required suppliers to honor American labor laws for all of their farm-workers, regardless of the worker’s citizenship status. YUM also agreed to refrain from using suppliers who held workers in indentured servitude, and to petition the Florida state legislature “for laws guaranteeing tomato workers the same rights, protections, and privileges that other non-agricultural workers enjoy.”(3)

Two years later, in 2007, McDonald’s signed a similar agreement, followed by Burger King in 2008. Today, the tomato on your fast-food burger, if it was grown domestically (the story of imported tomatoes must be considered in another post), is likely influenced by the CIW’s protracted but successful “fair food” campaign.

The fact that the “fair food” was secured through a market-based channel alone merits reflection.  Certainly, revered social reformers such as Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi have effectively employed economic boycotts, but these notable economic boycotts lead to substantial political reforms. In the case of the CIW’s boycotts, political results are still pending years later.

In this globalized world, where domestically consumed products frequently contain components produced by non-citizens, must those concerned with human rights now side step the limited reach of nation-specific governments, instead petitioning the multinational corporations for the protection of essential human goods?  While political entities bicker about threatened “ways of life,” is the most effective pragmatic solution one that bypasses political stalemates by targeting those with economic power?

The tomato on your burger is evidence that the mechanisms for social change have shifted. The implications of this merit further reflection. The power and influence of American political institutions are declining, as many of their functions are being assumed by corporate entities. This is not simply the outsourcing of administrative functions, but the outsourcing of significant aspects of the democratic process. Perhaps this is the best available response to ensuring human rights in a globalized world. Perhaps not. As you take a bite of that burger, the story of your tomato should give you something more to chew on.

-Stacy Cherones, Ethics Design Team


(1)  Coalition of Immolakee Worker’s website,, accessed on 10/5/2010


(3)  Ibid.

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3 Responses to Hamburger Series, Part 2: Considering Your Burger’s Tomato

  1. Jordan Wondrack says:

    This is very shocking to me as a college student because I am learning about buying food on my own. Fair trade is talked about in coffee shops, and buying local is promoted in grocery stores. When it comes to fast food, however, I find I was completely unaware of the potentially ethical implications. This is definitely an important issue, especially in the college sphere.

  2. Kelly says:

    That was a tough fight for tomato farm workers.
    Taking 4 years to get paid 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes.

    Bravo to CIW! If they had not started the boycott, things might still be the same.

  3. I have to agree with the commenters above. It is articles like this that make us aware of the consequences associated with what we would typically believe to be mundane decisions. Bravo to CIW for taking a stand!

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