Feeling the squeeze
Bryony Moore discovers that in the world of squash and cordial, it’s not just the fruit that’s being put under pressure.
Squash and cordial manufacturers are keen to sell their products to us on the premise that they make water (which is good for you) taste better. That may be true, but the things that go into your average squash aren’t quite so tasty...
In researching this product guide Ethical Consumer couldn’t find a single Fairtrade fruit squash or cordial. Fruit plantations in most countries, including Britain, make use of low-wage, casual labour. As a result, fruit farm workers across the globe face unplanned overtime, often arriving at work in the morning not knowing when they will be allowed to leave, or whether they will have any work the following day.
According to Oxfam, commonly hired on short-term contracts – or with no contract at all – women are working at high speed for low wages in unhealthy conditions. They are forced to put in long hours to earn enough to get by. Most have no sick leave or maternity leave, few are enrolled in health or unemployment schemes, and fewer still have savings for the future. Instead of supporting long-term development, trade is reinforcing insecurity and vulnerability for millions of women workers.(1)
There have been many stories in the media recently about the poor working conditions and pay faced by fruit pickers. Oxfam published a report in 2004 called ‘Trading Away our Rights’ in which they spoke with Chilean fruit pickers, who stated that 75 per cent of women in the agricultural sector in Chile are hired on temporary contracts picking fruit and put in more than 60 hours a week during the season. But one in three still earns below the minimum wage.(1)
“An agricultural labourer doesn’t take holidays, because she would be fired immediately, and would have to go elsewhere, and would have no way of buying food to eat. The situation is very difficult. One sees lots of injustice, all over the country…I feel like I have lost out…We are all losing out, we don’t have transparency from the government. If things don’t change, all that remains for us workers is to be exploited while others skim off the cream.”(2)
In December last year Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that it was providing relief for seasonal citrus fruit pickers in southern Italy after discovering their appalling living and working conditions. More than 2000 pickers were being housed in abandoned factories without any basic hygienic facilities. In areas of the Calabria province, MSF found at least 1500 migrant workers in extremely hazardous conditions. According to MSF, being exploited for labour with scarce healthcare, completely inadequate lodging and episodes of violence characterize the everyday reality of the migrant workers in these areas.(3)
The Independent and many other newspapers reported on an incident in which three Florida fruit pickers escaped their employer after a year of being locked up at night to prevent their escape, as well as being forced into debt by being made to pay for sub-standard food and to use meagre washing facilities ($5 for a shower with a garden hose or a bucket).(4)
Tesco fruit picker Gertruida Baartman came to the attention of the press in 2007 when she exposed the poor treatment of Tesco’s fruit pickers in South Africa. She attended the company’s Annual General Meeting to demand that something be done about workers who were being paid a wage below that necessary to maintain even a basic standard of living. As a result of attending the meetings, some things at her farm changed. In the past, fruit pickers were forced back into the orchards immediately after the crops had been sprayed with pesticides, meaning that workers were often handling fruit that was still wet with dangerous chemicals. But Gertruida said that, “On our farm things did change but all the other farms basically remain the same. It changed on my farm because the spotlight and the media have been on me.”(5)
Supermarkets, with the notable exception of the Co-op, don’t disclose the suppliers of their own-brand products.
The main ingredient in most cordial is sugar. There are many issues surrounding the use of sugar, which were covered in detail in our buyer’s guide to sugar in issue 117 (March/April). The guide includes a discussion about whether we should buy sugar which comes from cane or beet, about the environmental impacts of crops and production processes and last but not least, the health implications of this highly addictive substance, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hyperactivity in children and dental decay.(7)
As if those things weren’t enough to raise concerns, some squash doesn’t even contain fruit or sugar.
Other additives in many mainstream brands are a cause for concern, particularly when children are the main target for such products. Some medicines containing the same additives found in soft drinks including fruit squash, are legally obliged to carry warnings of possible side effects, including skin allergies and breathing problems, while soft drinks aren’t. An article in The Independent listed Ribena as a product which included sodium benzoate (E122) and sodium bisulphate (E222) but no warning, whereas if it were a medicine it would have to warn that E211 can be mildly irritant to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes and that E222 may rarely cause severe hypersensitivity reactions and difficulty in breathing.(6)
Ethical Consumer also took a quick look at artificial sweeteners as part of the sugar buyer’s guide in issue 117. Aspartame and saccharin have both been linked to health disorders, but with inconclusive evidence. However, it seems that these products would be best avoided.(7)
Transporting fruit year-round from tropical climates, as well as packaging it in plastic bottles often made from non-renewable fossil fuels, can all negatively affect the environment.
Most families throw away about 40kg of plastic per year, which could otherwise be recycled.8 Lots of companies now use at least some recycled materials in their packaging, and those that don’t are really falling behind. Ribena have developed a bottle made from 100% recycled plastic (although it doesn’t say whether this will be used for its entire product range) and many of the luxury cordial brands are packaged in bottles made with some recycled glass content, including Rocks whose bottles are made from 70% recycled glass. These companies have been given an extra half mark. The Co-op has a policy of not using PVC packaging.
The Soil Association website provides a list of producers local to you. Also many farmers’ markets sell cordials made with fruit produced on British farms. Supporting organic brands also means voting against GM and buying locally-produced cordials made from British fruit cuts down on air miles. We have included some fruit concentrates in the table, which make an ideal healthy alternative to squash or cordial as they contain nothing but concentrated fruit juice.
Ribena is owned by massive pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) which routinely uses animal testing.(9) In 2007, a BBC Panorama documentary revealed secret emails showing that GlaxoSmithKline distorted trial results of an anti-depressant, covering up a link with suicide in teenagers. Panorama revealed that the company attempted to show that Seroxat worked for depressed children despite failed clinical trials. GSK told Panorama: “GSK utterly rejects any suggestion that it has improperly withheld drug trial information.”(10)
Also in 2007, Russian prosecutors were investigating a local hospital on suspicions it illegally tested vaccines made by GlaxoSmithKline on toddlers, making them ill and hampering their development. [P]rosecutors [said] Glaxo paid the clinic in southwestern Russia $50,000 to conduct the trials. GSK denied the claims and said there was no evidence of adverse events or misconduct in the way the study had been carried out.[P]rosecutors claimed parents were not properly informed.(11)
Coca-Cola (Schweppes) is widely criticised for its monopoly on water resources in India and other countries.(12)
Also, findings of a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, showed that there was a, “significant increase of breast and pancreatic cancer in rats fed regular amounts of Coca-Cola”.(13) Feeling Blue Seeing Red has called a boycott of the company for failing to actively protect workers being persecuted for supporting the unionisation of Colombia’s bottling plants.(14)
CFC, a lobby group for healthy food, highlighted a blatant promotion by Vimto, makers of the purple soft drink, owned by Nichols plc, where teachers in more than 1,000 schools were encouraged to use English lessons to promote the drink, at one time promoted by the animated Purple Ronnie character. According to CFC, pupils were asked to write a poem in praise of Vimto for National Poetry Day.(15)