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Farm workers protest worker treatment, shed light on beef feeding practices at Beef Northwest

Last Saturday, Beef Northwest employees from Boardman, Oregon, union partners, and members of the faith community gathered at Whole Foods in Portland’s Pearl District to call attention to working conditions and practices at Beef Northwest, the feedlot for Oregon Country Natural Beef, and to seek support for their efforts to unionize. Whole Foods is among a number of businesses–including New Seasons Market, Burgerville, and McMenamin’s–that sell Oregon Country Natural Beef’s “grass fed” beef. Whole Foods was targeted for protest because, as a major distributor for this product, they failed to support Beef Northwest workers’ pursuit of improved working conditions through union representation.

Oregon Country Natural Beef is a cooperative of cattle farms that raise grass-fed beef. However, all the cattle these local farms raise goes through the Beef Northwest feedlot in Boardman for final processing. The cattle spend an average of 89 days there before they are slaughtered and distributed. Employees work in conditions of extreme heat and cold with no shelter for rest, lack ready access to water, breathe in dust and fecal matter from the cattle, and report being forced to continue working even when injured.

Injuries are not uncommon in these settings, but workers are eligible for only three days of paid sick leave per year. Beef Northwest’s employee protections are minimal when compared to those of unionized farms; Threemile Canyon Farms, another Boardman farm, signed a collective bargaining agreement with United Farm Workers earlier this summer. This agreement improved farm worker benefits and protections and helped make the lives of the people who produce our food better. Len Bergstein, a spokesperson for Threemile Canyon Farms, described the change as working very well for the company, adding that it is in everybody’s interests for Oregon to develop clear state guidelines governing how employees go about deciding on union representation.

Such guidelines could help the current situation with Beef Northwest. Beef Northwest employees have so far been unsuccessful in their negotiations for representation with United Farm Workers. Beef Northwest, while claiming neutrality, has, according to employees, engaged in anti-union tactics. Negotiations broke down in mid-August, and workers were unable to enlist the support of Whole Foods and Oregon Country Natural Beef, both of whom are in a great place to use their influence on the workers’ behalf.

What about New Seasons, our favorite grocery store? Claudia Knotek of New Seasons Market described their current position on this matter as one of respect for both sides; “We hope that the differences will be resolved,” she said. Additional comments from Brian Rohter, New Seasons CEO, are pending.

For consumers who care more about their beef than the people who grew it, there’s more. During the three-month holding time at Beef Northwest, the grass-fed cattle switch to a diet of cooked potatoes, corn, and alfalfa [see Oregon Country Natural Beef’s site here and here]. From OCNB’s website:

Cooked waste potatoes from nearby food processing plants which would probably go into a landfill without a ruminant to eat them make up over half the ration for the 89 day average stay in the lot.

Information from workers suggests that cows are also being fed used vegetable oil from a processing plant, which raises the possibility that these cattle essentially survive on the equivalent of French fries for the last few months of their bovine lives.

This is not the diet that comes to mind when beef is described as “grass fed.”

I support local and family business for a number of reasons: I think it makes better economic and environmental sense for our communities, and I hope that it supports my values related to worker rights and to corporate transparency. I also value being informed as a consumer. In convoluted situations such as these, there are key players who should be using their influence to make things right, and Oregon Country Natural Beef is one of them; Whole Foods is another. I support workers rights and would like to see these businesses (and others) take the opportunity to rally behind the people who do the hardest physical work to get our food to us, for the fewest benefits, and support them in their just requests.

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