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Driscoll's exec picked to lead produce industry social responsibility group

A senior executive at Driscoll's is taking charge of a produce industry social responsibility alliance, placing the world's largest berry distributor at the center of an effort to improve working conditions for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers in Mexico.

Mario Steta, Driscoll's general manager of Mexico operations, has been elected president of the alliance, putting the Watsonville, Calif., company in position to guide an industry rocked by labor unrest and media scrutiny of abusive labor conditions at many export farms.

The group that Steta oversees — the International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry — represents growers and distributors in Mexico and the United States that account for 80% of produce exports to the U.S.

It was established in February, after a Los Angeles Times investigation found that Mexican agribusinesses forced thousands of workers to live in barbed-wire fenced labor camps, housed in overcrowded dorms overrun with rodents, and overcharged for everyday items, their pay withheld until the end of the harvest season.

The largely unregulated industry has resisted change for years. In an interview, Steta said he will focus on building partnerships between growers and the Mexican government, using Driscoll's approach as the model.

"It is not only the right thing to do, it is just good business," Steta said, cautioning that reforms won't happen overnight. "Changing this reality is complex and it's going to take time."

Some industry watchers said Driscoll's high-profile move is a positive step that lends credibility to the project. Driscoll's is considered to be among the more socially responsible operators in Mexico, providing full government benefits and higher-than-average wages at its supplier farms.

The company played a key role this year in pressuring the Mexican government to help end a strike in Baja California. The negotiations resulted in a landmark agreement that marked the first time in recent Mexican history that growers conceded to raising salaries of striking workers.

"I take my hat off to Driscoll's. They're willing to step up and provide leadership to bring some degree of security to the workforce in Mexico," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a trade group that is often critical of labor conditions at rival Mexican farms.

Driscoll's power to bring change could be limited, however, if Mexican growers remain resistant to costly social improvement efforts, and if large U.S. buyers of Mexican produce such as Wal-Mart are unwilling to pay higher costs.

"The problem is, though Driscoll's is a big company and a good brand, they are not a retailer," said Jim Prevor, a leading product industry analyst. "So they don't have direct leverage on other growers to force them to do things they don't want, or are expensive to do."

Others remain skeptical of the grower-led effort to improve standards, pointing out that the alliance, though 7 months old, has yet to detail its reform plans and will not commit to oversight by third-party auditors.

It took thousands of workers going on strike to achieve better wages and work conditions in Baja California, said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers of America.

He said until the alliance acts unilaterally with concrete steps to improve worker lives, its motives are questionable. "I'm not convinced that there is a will to do anything substantive within that group," Nicholson said. "It seems more marketing and PR."

richard.marosi@latimes.com

Twitter: @ricardin24

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