Daily News Archive
From October 18, 2005                                                                                                           

Vegetable Grower Fined $111,200 for Pesticide Misuse
(Beyond Pesticides, October 18, 2005) Ag-Mart Produce, one of Florida’s largest vegetable growers, has been fined $111,200 by Florida’s Department of Agriculture, alleging 88 counts of pesticide misuse violations. The fine is considered as the steepest in Florida for the type of violation. Ag-Mart is planning to challenge most of the alleged violations, which according to the state happened at two farms in Immokalee and Jennings.

Ag-Mart, also known as Santa Sweets Incorporated, growers of the Santa Sweet grape tomato that operate farms in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey and Mexico. The giant Florida tomato grower which has been at the center of an investigation involving three deformed babies born to fieldworkers (see Daily News), learned of the state’s action against them just a little more than a week after announcing it will no longer use pesticides that have been linked to birth defects (see Daily News).

According to agriculture documents, the investigation found Ag-Mart’s extensive violations breached regulations designed to ensure consumer and worker safety. Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, said if the department had interviewed more Ag-Mart workers, he is convinced it would have found more violations. A survey that his group conducted of about 80 workers at the company's northern Florida operations in Jennings found that 20 percent had been directly sprayed at that location and just under half had been exposed to pesticides through drift. "Ag-Mart will tell you that it's a flawed survey," Schell said. "I'm not going to say that 20 percent of all workers are sprayed. What it told us is that there are a lot of people that have problems."

In a story reported by the Palm Beach Post, Terry McElroy, spokesperson for Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) said the investigation highlighted the need for additional pesticide inspectors at the spokesperson Terry McElroy. Currently, FDACS employs about 45 pesticide exposure inspectors to be responsible for all of its 44,000 farms, livestock operations and 200 million square feet of nursery foliage. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said he intends to ask for money to pay for ten additional pesticide-safety inspectors and five additional inspectors in the food-safety division.

A report released by the health officials in Collier County, Florida where the company has a farm in Immokalee, showed no link was found between the agricultural chemicals used on the Florida farms and the deformities of the three babies born to Ag-Mart field workers last winter. While the report could not find a link between agricultural chemicals and the birth defects, it did find the rate of birth defects to children born in Collier County has been higher than the state average in recent years, but officials cannot say why. According to Shelly Davis, co-executive director of Farmworker Justice Fund, “I think they need to do more digging here. It seems like it’s the beginning of wisdom.”

Davis said, companies that do not comply with pesticide laws put consumers and farmworkers at risk. Pesticide labels specify how soon a crop can be harvested after chemicals are applied, as well as how soon workers can re-enter fields. Of the 88 violations that Ag-Mart was cited for, 65 involves harvesting crops before the required seven-day waiting period, in some cases workers were in the fields picking the vegetables the day after they were sprayed. Despite these violations, according to agriculture officials, routine spot checks did not turn up illegal pesticide residues.

According to Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, that does not equate to food that's safe to eat or a field that's safe to work in. For one thing, there are many pesticides, some of them known endocrine disruptors for which the federal government has not set legal residue limits. "Given this birth defect cluster and what it suggests, it really should be cause for evaluating whether the agency is looking at the problem in the best manner and whether it needs to do a better job of tracking exposures."

Meanwhile one day after being cited by the Florida agriculture officials, agriculture officials in North Carolina notified the company of at least the same amount of violations cited against them in their state. In a story reported by the Palm Beach Post, North Carolina officials acknowledged they would not elaborate on their findings or the amount of the fine until the company received notice via certified mail. According to the story, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official in Washington, DC confirmed that in North Carolina, it is alleged that Ag-Mart applied some pesticides more often than allowed by the label. The EPA along with other federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plans to analyze findings of the investigations in Florida and North Carolina, said the EPA official.

David Sheon, Ag-Mart company spokesperson told the Naples Daily News, “We don’t believe that the violations as listed by the state, as brought by the state, are factually accurate.” Shoen said the grower fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to cooperate with any subsequent investigations. Ag-Mart will appeal most of the alleged pesticide use in Florida, including allegations that it allowed workers to reenter fields too soon after pesticides had been applied.