Because of an investigative series in The Times, American consumers are more aware that a "Product of Mexico" label on their tomatoes or broccoli might mean that the produce has been picked by people living in squalid conditions in farm camps far from their homes, unable to leave because of their contracts. Some workers are held against their will, forced to live behind barbed-wire fences. Some are children.
What has become clear, from readers' responses, is that many consumers are dismayed and want to know what they can do.
Retailers worry about their images and respond to public outrage. But they'll become aware of it only if consumers speak out. When shoppers demand more of their stores (and school districts and colleges, which are also big buyers of foreign produce), those institutions in turn demand more of their suppliers and growers.
Perhaps the easiest and most reliable way to know that farmworkers have been treated decently is by buying what are known as fair trade products. Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit that works with growers around the world to help them operate their businesses at a profit while acting responsibly toward their employees and the environment. The organization also audits farms regularly to ensure that growers are living up to their agreements.
Fair trade products are labeled accordingly, usually including a black, white and green logo with the words "Fair Trade Certified." But some stores have only a few such products; they would stock more if consumers requested them.
A list of fair trade products, and the brands and retailers that supply them, is available at http://www.fairtradeusa.org/products-partners. Fair Trade USA reports that the volume of produce under its inspection grew 37% during 2013.
Customers should ask their store managers about the conditions under which the Mexican produce is grown and should not accept vague assurances about inspectors. Who is doing the certification and inspection and how often? If they don't know, they'll soon learn.
College students can make similar demands of their schools. Locally, students and faculty at Loyola Marymount University and UCLA persuaded the coffee providers for their campuses to buy fair trade beans.
People can even form fair trade groups in their towns, schools and community organizations through a separate effort called Fair Trade Campaigns. One organization that should be prodded to move toward better practices is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which The Times investigation found had unknowingly bought produce from abusive operations for the lunches it feeds to more than 600,000 students each day.