Last week, Bobby Heugel, owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, dumped more than 20 bottles of his bar's Flor de Caña rum down the drain after reading a Munchies article that detailed the punishing, and ultimately fatal work conditions of its sugarcane cutters, and how the brand has long been indifferent to the alarming death rate.
The provocative piece called out the "silent epidemic" behind Flor de Caña, Nicaragua’s most popular export—that its sugarcane mill workers in the municipality of Chichigalpa and surrounding communities have been dying from (and are continuing to die from) chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu). However, the Munchies piece states the disease isn't a result of exposure to pesticides, as many workers had believed, but rather from not receiving enough, if any, water, shade, and rest.
Eater reached out to Flor de Caña to hear their side of the story, however the company refuted the article's assertions with a statement claiming that over the last several years Ingenio San Antonio, its sugar mill and processing plant in Chichigalpa, has taken an active role in studying CKDu. Flor de Caña claims that the brand has worked with international research groups like Boston University to develop ways to "prevent, control, monitor and measure the incidence of CKDu among our workforce."
Just one day of cutting sugarcane is said to be as grueling as running half a marathon. And with the cutters required to work six to seven days a week, half a year without rest and hydration, it takes a toll.
The rate of people in Chichigalpa dying from CKDu is "more than six times the national average; at least 2,800 to 3,500 people have died from the disease in the last decade," according to the Munchies piece.
After reading the article, Heugel decided to boycott Flor de Caña: "‘We can’t pour this anymore in our bar.’ I don’t know how that couldn’t be your reaction. And I don’t know how you can willingly and consciously pour a spirit that you know is associated with the deaths of people who contribute to its production."
The bar owner says he's long suspected the same issue plagued the tequila and mezcal distilleries in Mexico, but this is the first time he's seen it "so well documented and researched." The bar community is generally aware that agricultural workers in "less developed countries" who help produce spirits live in less-than-ideal conditions. But seldomly do they act on this awareness or choose to educate themselves on the issues.
"We can’t pour this anymore in our bar."
It's something that Heugel believes needs to change. "If we expect chefs in the United States to care for the welfare of animals that they serve in their restaurants, why don’t we expect the best bartenders and bars to care for the welfare of the people who produce the spirits that they serve?" he asks.
Heugel is not officially calling for a Flor de Caña boycott. Yet, he estimates his own boycott will end up costing Anvil $10,000 a year from trading out the cheap bottles for the next best option, which is 20 cents more a bottle. But he doesn't know how his fellow bartenders, being in a hospitality industry, could continue to support the rum.
Jim Romdall of Rumba rum bar in Seattle, however, has taken Heugel's lead in pulling Flor de Caña rum from his shelves. It's a move the self-described "rhummelier" says he had actually considered in the past but had "consciously ignored this issue for some time."
"Some of the best rums in the world are produced in the poorest countries with abysmal working conditions and this isn't an issue exclusive to Nicaragua or Flor de Caña, but it's time to take a stand and hopefully bring this issue to light on a global level," he says.
Both barmen say that once Flor de Caña finally takes action to help its workers they will happily restock and promote it. "If they address these issues and buying Flor de Caña was a way for me to contribute to the healthy lifestyle of a sugarcane farmer in Nicaragua then I would be happy to carry the product again," says Heugel.
However, Flor de Caña assures that "Ingenio San Antonio’s health and safety programs are certified and audited by numerous domestic and international institutions on a regular basis," and that the plant has "consistently received an award in the category of Excellence in Occupational Safety and Health."
According to the company, the Munchies piece only painted a "partial portrayal of the working conditions in Chichigalpa ... which neither reflect nor contribute positively to the efforts that are being made in terms of research, treatment and prevention of CKDu." But, it goes on to say, the Nicaraguan sugar mill "will continue to invest in industry-leading research and health and safety practices, and hope that the current discussion compels a greater level of involvement and investment in these efforts."