National religious leader, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, slams major Wendy’s ad in New York Times…


Wendy’s ad “deeply troubling, as it highlights a meticulous process for developing a new product in which the human beings who actually pick and serve the product are a mere garnish…”

Over the weekend, visitors to the New York Times website were greeted with a sleek, high-value Wendy’s advertisement in the form of a “paid post,” an extended format report on the development of a new blackberry salad that blurred the lines between reporting and marketing.  While less informed readers might have fallen for Wendy’s glossy tale of concern for how its blackberries are treated, for the countless consumers boycotting Wendy’s precisely because of its lack of concern for how workers are treated — the Fair Food Nation fully aware of the fast-food giant’s refusal to join the award-winning Fair Food Program — the rosy ad felt like a charade.

And so it was that longtime Fair Food champion Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster — a religious leader who has seen Immokalee’s tomato fields for herself, spoken to countless workers, and watched the transformation of the Florida tomato industry under the Fair Food Program — was so outraged by the ad that she penned a powerful rebuttal before the weekend was even over.

She shared her response with us, and here, below, we publish her hard-hitting letter, in full:

Tomato Rabbis outside of Wendy's shareholder meeting in 2013
Tomato Rabbis outside of Wendy’s shareholder meeting in 2013

As a longtime CIW ally, perhaps one of the most infuriating aspects of Wendy’s refusal to commit to the human rights of tomato pickers has been its highly public, deeply misguided corporate social responsibility efforts.  

That is because these efforts, of course, do not serve to root out or actually eliminate the human rights abuses faced by workers in their supply chain — but rather simply to deflect consumer attention from those abuses.

There is nothing more emblematic of Wendy’s-style CSR than their Supplier Code of Conduct, a weak substitute for the Fair Food Program that has not prevented the company from sourcing from growers who have been charged with using slave labor.  When I was honored to join CIW at the Wendy’s shareholder meeting in May, I listened with dismay as the company honchos repeatedly described their brand as “deliciously different,” knowing full well that Wendy’s was instead perpetuating the same decades-old way of doing business that provides fertile ground for human rights abuses in their supply chain, even while their competitors are moving full steam ahead into the 21st century.

Given Wendy’s decision to choose public relations over the documented results of worker-driven social responsibility, it was with no small degree of interest that I read “Fresh Food Fast: From Farm to Fork,” a “paid article” (in other words, an ad masquerading as a news item) from Wendy’s on the website of the New York Times, extolling the virtues of one of its new summer salads.  


Whether or not the Summer Berry Chicken Salad is tasty is a matter I will leave to those uninformed souls who are not yet boycotting Wendy’s until they join the Fair Food Program.  The “article” is deeply troubling, as it highlights a meticulous process for developing a new product in which the human beings who actually pick and serve the product are a mere garnish for a “success story” about catering to the evolving tastes of consumers.   One of my often-repeated lines representing the Jewish community in the Campaign for Fair Food is that it is not the tomato that is created in the image of God but the tomato worker… but this “article” represented yet a new low for Wendy’s in focusing on the wrong side of that equation.

The core thesis of the fast food chain’s ad is that Wendy’s customers are becoming more choosy about the elements of the food they eat:

“Consumers are smarter about their food and more demanding of great flavors and high-quality ingredients;  food that’s grown with great credentials,” says Wendy’s Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito. “Bringing quality food and flavors to consumers, whether that’s in a salad or on a sandwich, has been a core of Wendy’s vision since day one.” […] Restaurants like Wendy’s, that focus on providing fresh, quality ingredients, are attracting customers who increasingly are scrutinizing their on-the-go food choices.

Interestingly, I have heard a similar line from Ms. Esposito before, in person.  We were both in the same room at the Wendy’s shareholder meeting, when she was given the unenviable task of putting a positive spin on Wendy’s Code of Conduct.  The one difference was that at the shareholder meeting, Ms. Esposito gave lip service to the idea that “labor” was something that consumers cared about.  Here, no such pretense is made.  In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as 21st century consumers express ever-greater interest in the wellbeing of the people and animals behind what’s on their dinner table, Wendy’s purports that its customers only scrutinize their food for the freshness of its ingredients, and not for the fairness of its production.

Another theme of the article is the inspiring tale of how the corporation had to search high and low to find the right growers in order to be able to ensure the many hundreds of thousands of berries at the right quality to produce the salad.

But we know full well that Wendy’s scrutinizes its suppliers in a different way.  Wendy’s chose to abandon the Florida tomato industry (and the growers who have worked with farmworkers to create “the best workplace in American agriculture,” as stated in an 2014 piece of actual reporting by the New York Times) specifically to avoid committing to the human rights protections of the Fair Food Program.  And not only that, but as exposed this past spring by Harper’s Magazine, Wendy’s specifically shifted their purchases to a Mexican tomato producer that was in the midst of a federal investigation for holding over 300 men, women and children in abject slavery.

It is the height of hypocrisy for Wendy’s to shamelessly promote their commitment to quality products when their true priorities are so clearly on display to even the mildest of discerning consumers.  As I told Wendy’s board of directors in May, speaking on behalf of the scores of major denominations and religious leaders who have endorsed the boycott:

As faith leaders guided by values such as human dignity and respect for workers, we are deeply disturbed by the way that Wendy’s has fled from the comprehensive human rights protections offered by the Fair Food Program.  We believe that your conscious decision to move Wendy’s tomato purchases to Mexico to avoid the FFP, knowing that human rights abuses including violence and slavery are endemic in Mexico’s produce industry, is deeply immoral.

But the article did not even stop there.  Scattered throughout its nearly 2,000 words and glossy photos is a snapshot of one of the workers who picks the berries necessary for this new salad.  He is described as follows:

portrait2Harvesters like Prospero Lopez Diaz begin work on the Navarros’ ranch at 6 a.m. Diaz has been picking berries for eight years.  He says that, while speed is important, picking berries with care is paramount.  Every flat of blackberries can be traced back to the worker who picked them.

This truly stunning play at demonstrating Wendy’s transparency and micro-management of their blackberry supply is doubly ironic.  First, it is simply illogical that Wendy’s is able to trace their blackberries directly to individual workers, and yet somehow does not use that same system to confirm what has already been well-documented:  the conditions on the farms they buy tomatoes from in Mexico are not even remotely comparable to those on Fair Food farms, and at least one of those farms has recently been implicated in a case of outright slavery

Secondly and more importantly, however, is that what Wendy’s is putting on display is the power they have as a buyer to not only examine, but to dictate, every detail of the treatment of a blackberry from “farm to fork.”  The rate of work, the temperature of cooling, the timing of delivery.  Yet, when it comes to the working conditions of the women and men on the farm — which is precisely what hangs in the balance in Wendy’s decision to reject the Fair Food Program — all of Wendy’s detailed supply chain knowledge as well as their indomitable influence as a buyer evaporates.

It is additionally ironic that Mr. Diaz’s wisdom and experience is only valuable (and quote-worthy) to Wendy’s in relation to the fruit he picks.  In contrast, if Mr. Diaz was working on a farm that participated in a Worker-Driven Social Responsibility program like the Fair Food Program, he would also be on the front lines of ensuring that he and his fellow workers were treated with dignity, paid fairly, and trained to be the protectors of their own human rights.

Finally, it is worth noting that the advertisement’s report-style format and placement next to actual journalism is as deeply troubling as its content, given that an unsuspecting reader might mistake it for a fact-checked article straight out of the food section.

If Wendy’s can take this much time and effort to launch a new salad, extolling the sophistication of the customers who will benefit from the “fruits of labor” of Wendy’s farmworkers, then surely the hamburger giant can use even a fraction of that capacity to commit to justice and human rights.  

If the growing success of the Wendy’s boycott shows anything, it is that even more than ripe and tasty berries, Wendy’s consumers are choosing to support meaningful, verifiable rights protections for the workers who pick its tomatoes.