Wendy’s new twist on an old PR game: CIW’s Fair Food Program un-American…

“America doesn’t work that way” is Wendy’s old-school line of defense in long-awaited public relations response to Campaign for Fair Food

Last month, with Fair Food activists gathered outside Wendy’s corporate headquarters in Dublin, OH, on the occasion of the company’s annual shareholder meeting, Wendy’s spokesperson Bob Bertini told Ohio Fair Food’s Jessica Shimberg that the hamburger giant hadn’t yet put the finishing touches on its official response to the Campaign for Fair Food, but that it would be coming soon. To quote Mr. Bertini:

“I really don’t want to articulate our reasons right now, but you’ll be seeing our response.” read more

Well, the big day has finally arrived, and the Wendy’s communications team certainly didn’t disappoint!

Here below is the company response, in its entirety, from the Wendy’s website:


Wendy’s is being targeted by an activist group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and its allies at other activist organizations.

CIW demands we make payments to employees of the companies who supply our tomatoes from the Immokalee area in Florida — even though they are not Wendy’s employees. CIW is demanding an added fee on top of the price we pay our suppliers. However, because of our high standards, we already pay a premium to our Florida tomato suppliers.

We believe it’s inappropriate to demand that one company pay another company’s employees. America doesn’t work that way.

Our responsibility to Wendy’s customers is to negotiate directly with our suppliers – not third-party organizations — to ensure our product specifications are met at a competitive price. If our suppliers incur additional labor costs, we would expect them to pass them on to us over time.

Actions by Our Florida Tomato Suppliers

All of the Florida tomatoes purchased by Wendy’s supply chain cooperative come from suppliers who participate in the Fair Food Program, which means they have:

1. Adopted the Fair Food Code of Conduct
2. Agreed to implement a system of health and safety volunteers, which affords workers regular and structured input into the safety of their work environment
3. Agreed to an independent and verifiable complaint investigation and remediation mechanism
4. Agreed to have compliance with the program independently monitored
5. Agreed to a worker education program conducted on company premises and company time

Wendy’s supports ongoing efforts by Florida tomato growers to improve working conditions for their workers.” see the response in its natural habitat here

There’s a lot to unpack there, but in brief, the statement is a remarkable exercise in PR spin, from start to finish. It begins by twisting the truth to attack the Fair Food Program for things it doesn’t do, then goes on to twist the truth to confuse consumers about a premium Wendy’s doesn’t pay, and ends by twisting the truth to take credit for things the Fair Food Program actually does do — no thanks to Wendy’s whatsoever.

And the cherry on top? A little old school sociopolitical turn, a play straight out of the 1950’s, implying that the Fair Food Program is somehow un-American.

Untwisting the truth

Let’s begin by setting the record straight (again, it feels a bit like Groundhog Day around here sometimes, but…). Here we go, twist by twist:

  1. Wendy’s, like Publix before it, says, “CIW demands we make payments to employees of the companies who supply our tomatoes from the Immokalee area in Florida…” Fact: No, we don’t. The Fair Food Program, which the CIW is calling on Wendy’s to join, requires participating buyers to pay a Fair Food Premium for purchases of Florida tomatoes. That premium, similar to any fair trade premium, is not paid by the buyer directly to the workers, but is in fact built into the final price of tomatoes, on the invoice, paid to participating growers. The buyers simply pay for their tomatoes as they always have, only now with a small premium. The accounting and distribution of the penny-per-pound funds are handled by the growers, who pay workers in the form of a bonus on their regular paycheck. Wendy’s would not make any payments to any employees of other companies.
  2. Wendy’s says, “However, because of our high standards, we already pay a premium to our Florida tomato suppliers.”Fact: Whatever premium Wendy’s claims it is paying here, it is most definitely not the Fair Food Premium, it is not being monitored by the accounting systems of the Fair Food Program, and it is not going to address the grinding poverty suffered by the workers who have picked Wendy’s tomatoes for decades. As such, to include whatever premium Wendy’s might be paying in a “conversation” about the Fair Food Program is, at best, confusing, and at worst, deceptive. We invite you to decide which of those might best describe Wendy’s intent here.
  3. Wendy’s says, “All of the Florida tomatoes purchased by Wendy’s supply chain cooperative come from suppliers who participate in the Fair Food Program.”Fact: How convenient. Only Wendy’s knows if that particular claim is true, and that’s exactly the problem. Transparency is a cornerstone of the Fair Food Program, and all participating buyers report their Florida tomato purchases to the Fair Food Standards Council. This mapping allows for the accurate accounting of the Fair Food Premium and for the effective exercise of the market-based enforcement mechanisms behind the Fair Food Code of Conduct. When a participating grower is found to be in violation of the zero tolerance provisions of the Code, or refuses to correct other violations discovered through regular audits or the complaint resolution mechanism, that grower is suspended from the Program. The participating buyers that purchase from that grower are informed so that they can shift their purchases to other participating growers in good standing, as they committed to do upon joining the Program. Wendy’s claim to purchase all of its tomatoes from participating growers rings hollow both because it is utterly unverifiable and because it is meaningless, even if true, as in the event that one of its suppliers is suspended from the Program, Wendy’s is under no obligation to shift its purchases.

So now that we have un-spun all the twisted threads of Wendy’s long-awaited statement on the Campaign for Fair Food, what’s left?

Interestingly, Wendy’s outline of the key components of the Fair Food Program, the very aspects of the unique partnership that have drawn universal praise (most recently from theWhite House and the United Nations), is accurate. What’s misleading — and ironic, to say the least — is the inclusion of the outline in a diatribe dedicated to disparaging the Program and to justifying Wendy’s refusal to join. By listing the Program’s benefits for workers, Wendy’s implies that it is somehow responsible for bringing those reforms about, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

What’s American?

The logic — if that word can be used — behind the statement as a whole is so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible. But the twist that truly sets the Wendy’s statement apart is found in this stand-alone paragraph:

“We believe it’s inappropriate to demand that one company pay another company’s employees. America doesn’t work that way.”

First of all, the Fair Food Program doesn’t work that way, either. For our answer to the explicit premise of this particular passage — that the CIW is calling on Wendy’s to pay another company’s employees — see response #1 above. Wendy’s can have its own opinions, but it can’t have its own facts.

But, as to its implicit premise — that the Fair Food Program itself is somehow un-American — well, that is a matter of opinion, and on that we are simply going to have to agree to disagree (once we ultimately sit down to hammer out a Fair Food agreement, that is).

We would submit that there is nothing more “American” than social reform. Yes, slavery was American, but the Abolitionist movement ultimately proved to be more in keeping with the fundamental promises on which this country was founded than did that brutal institution of exploitation. Yes, the subjugation of women was American, but the Suffragist movement ultimately proved more American. And yes, the systematic legal and economic oppression of African Americans was American, and staunchly defended by some of this country’s greatest and most respected minds, but ultimately the Civil Rights movement proved far, far more American.

And yes, for generations, the systematic exploitation and degradation of the men and women who toil in our fields was every bit as American as all those other social ills. But, ultimately, we are quite certain that the Fair Food movement — including its premium, designed to redress decades of farmworker poverty created, in significant part, by the volume purchasing power of multi-billion dollar buyers like Wendy’s — will prove more American.

Perhaps most importantly, we are quite sure that Wendy’s customers — particularly the “milennials” with whom Wendy’s so desperately wants to build an emotional connection — will agree.