When the Associated Press reported this week that an owner of Jensen Farms was being fined by the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to provide safe migrant worker housing, I must admit even I was a bit shocked.  Could it be that an owner of a business that allowed a deadly fecal bacterium, Listeria, to coat its product would treat its employees like crap, too?  

Well, apparently yes.  It seems that Eric Jensen, the Colorado Cantaloupe grower whose product caused an outbreak that sickened 146 people and killed 30 (by my count 32), rented migrant workers unsanitary, overcrowded rooms at a motel he owns. Inspectors said many rooms lacked beds, laundry facilities and smoke detectors. Jensen now faces a whopping $4,250 in civil penalties.  As the Labor Department’s Denver director said:

“Profiting at the expense of vulnerable workers is not just inhumane, it’s illegal.”

I would add immoral and really, really stupid–especially when it comes to producing safe food.

Lest we forget, the FDA and the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee found a number of safety lapses at Jensen Farms that likely led to the outbreak:

safety-first-406x250.jpg–  Condensation from cooling systems draining directly onto the floor,

–  Poor drainage resulting in water pooling around the food processing equipment,

–  Inappropriate food processing equipment which was difficult to clean (i.e., Listeria found on the felt roller brushes),

–  No antimicrobial solution, such as chlorine, in the water used to wash the cantaloupes,

–  No equipment to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before they were placed into 
cold storage, and

–  FDA officials were highly critical of the processing methods used at Jensen Farms. According to these FDA officials, the probable causes of the melon contamination at Jensen Farms included “serious design flaws” in the processing technique used at Jensen Farms, “poor sanitary design of the facility itself,” and “lack of awareness of food safety standards by Jensen Farms.” In particular, FDA emphasized to Committee staff that the processing equipment and the decision not to chlorinate the water used to wash the cantaloupes were two probable causes of the contamination.

Hmm, does this sound familiar to you?  Remember the sickening of 1939 people with Salmonella and the recall of 500,000,000 eggs in 2010 linked to Iowa’s Wright County Egg?  Who could forget the FDA inspection report highlights of some of its findings at Wright County:

–  Chicken manure located in the manure pits below the egg laying operations was observed to be approximately 4 feet high to 8 feet high at the following locations: Layer 1 – House 1; Layer 3 – Houses 2, 7, 17, and 18. The outside access doors to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals,

–  Un-baited, unsealed holes appearing to be rodent burrows located along the second floor baseboards were observed inside Layer 1 – Houses 1-9 and 11-13; Layer 2 – Houses 7 and 11; Layer 3 – Houses 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6; Layer 4 – House 3,

–  Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses at the following locations: Layer 1 – Houses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, and 14; and Layer 3 – Houses 1, 8, 13, and 17,

–  Standing water approximately 3 inches deep was observed at the southeast corner of the manure pit located inside Layer 1 – House 13,

–  Un-caged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operations in contact with the egg laying birds at Layer 3 – Houses 9 and 16. The un-caged birds were using the manure, which was approximately 8 feet high, to access the egg laying area,

–  Layer 3 – House 11, the house entrance door to access both House 11 and 12 was blocked with excessive amounts of manure in the manure pits,

–  There were between 2 to 5 live mice observed inside the egg laying Houses 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14, and

–  Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed at the following locations inside the egg laying houses: Layer 1 – Houses 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, and 12; Layer 2 – Houses 7 and 11; Layer 3 – Houses 3, 4, 4, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16, 17, and 18. The live flies were on and around egg belts, feed, shell eggs and walkways in the different sections of each egg laying area. In addition, live and dead maggots too numerous to count were observed on the manure pit floor located in Layer 2 – House 7.

And, guess what else – the owner of Wright County, Jack DeCoster, cared little for his employees, too.  A few examples:

– In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were:

“As dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.”

– In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.

And, who can forget Stewart Parnell and the Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella outbreak of 2009 that sickened 714 persons in 46 states, killing nine.  The FDA reported that the company shipped tainted products under three conditions: (1) without retesting, (2) before the re-test results came back from an outside company, and (3) after a second test showed no bacterial contamination.

One PCA employee was quoted:

“I never ate the peanut butter, and I wouldn’t allow my kids to eat it.”

My strong suspicion is that Jensen Farms workers were not eating Jensen Farms cantaloupes as they sat in their overcrowded hotel rooms.  And, I would be willing to bet that Wright County employees were not taking a dozen eggs home to the family from work.

Perhaps there is a lesson here.  Perhaps how you treat your employees and how the employees feel about your product together say volumes about the quality and safety of the product.  If the employees will not eat the product, perhaps the product should simply not be sold.

  • Steve

    Singling out Jensen Farms for their not-uncommon industrial agricultural labor exploitation practices may be warranted — but it surely misses the bigger picture. Cheap field, processing and kitchen labor is still the foundation of our industrialized food system, responsible for the daily cornucopia that flows through our supermarkets and fast food joints onto our plates.
    For an excellent recent example, read “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook for a look at how powerless tomato (slave) workers are exploited by agribusiness as usual…
    If it was truly enforced then — “Profiting at the expense of vulnerable workers is not just inhumane, it’s illegal” — would see the profiteers of many of our finest brand names behind bars. That this all has majorimplications for food safety — well, perhaps that’s the lesson here…

  • Steve, I hear you. I certainly did not intend to imply that Jensen, Wright County or Peanut Corporation of America were the only problem – just example I am most familiar.
    Here is something I wrote on my friend Barry’s book:
    Here is Food Safety News Review:
    Thanks for the comment.

  • Cameron

    ….And as most, or a great deal of the “All American” Right-Wing, Tea-Party, “I hate government” types will say,it’s those damn “South-of-the-boarder-types” who are spoiling the American economy and taking “OUR” jobs away. Yeah, my ass they are. With out any level of government these companies WILL NOT over-see they’re operations in the correct manner and do the right thing. They will exactly do just the opposite, exploit workers all in the name of profits and sell “crappy” food to the masses, and they know it too.

  • It seems to be that if you can’t get the basics right ie cleaning, hygiene there will be a flow on effect to the rest of the business. Employees who work in un-clean dirty, filthy conditions will be exposed to occupation health and safety risks because of that environment. Food product will be at risk due to contamination. Equipment and maintenance issues / breakdowns will be numerous and ongoing.
    From my experience as a food auditor, if a business cannot get the basics right, there is no chance of being able to implement and comply with HACCP as intended. Business owners will eventually come un-stuck with these poor business practices…..it is only a matter of time.

  • Danae in MD

    Many seasonal workers are here legally with H-2 Visas, which is a short-term work Visa for a specific employer. If the worker quits or is fired, they may not take another job and have a short time to return to their country. For this reason, the workers may be fearful and do not complain to their employer. Even if the workers do complain, they are often ignored and have no other recourse. They simply do not benefit from any system of basic rights in the workplace.
    The current system places the workers at a great disadvantage. In my opinion, all workers should be here legally but the system needs to change so that the workers are embraced as a valuable part of our economy and society. There are plenty of reasons to improve the system as seasonal workers are in every state. In my own dear Maryland, crab meat is “picked” by seasonal workers. The current system enables unsafe work environments. It is true that few US citizens want these jobs, so why not create a system in which we don’t have to be ashamed? It really is an opportunity for everyone to benefit.

  • Dog Doctor

    Just a thought Euro GAPS (good agriculture practices) include employee practices and housing including paid sick leave and day care. The last large hep A outbreak in 2003 was linked to green onions from mexico who may have had sick children. If they can’t send the kids to school and they take them with them into the field. If you google it, there is a picture of a child sitting on a mound of green onions.
    Point being farm to fork has too be broader if we are going to develop a safer food supply.
    Most of the potential hazards in our food supply are not visible but microscopic or smaller- viruses, bacteria, parasites and chemical residues which can only be addressed through improving practices on the farm and through out the food system.