Rejects Ag-Mart Tomatoes Over Birth Defects in Florida
(Beyond Pesticides, November 3, 2005) Publix Super Markets, the sixth-largest supermarket chain in the country, has stopped selling tomatoes grown by Ag-Mart Produce, the Florida-based company charged with violating worker protections suspected of causing severe birth defects in the babies of three woman workers.
Publix spokesperson, Anne Hendricks, told reporters that the supermarket chain stopped sales of Ag-Mart’s Santa Sweet grape tomatoes in all 866 of its stores across five states, according to the Palm Beach Post. “’In light of the seriousness of this situation, we wanted to be able to take a step back and do a more thorough investigation,” she said.
Last March it was reported that three babies of farmworkers linked only by the fields in which their mothers picked tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida were born with severe birth defects. One baby was born without limbs, another with an underdeveloped jaw that causes his tongue to fall into his throat, and the other child was missing a nose, ear and sexual organs, and died after three days. The three women and their families all lived within 200 feet of one another at the same migrant labor in Immokolee, called Tower Cabins, and all worked for Ag-Mart picking tomatoes when they became pregnant in 2004.
In late September, the Collier County Health Department and Florida department of Agriculture conducted an investigation. According to initial reports, a sign posted at the entrance to the field where the farmworkers worked lists the use of 38 different pesticide products involving 30 toxic chemicals. The Health Department officials spent twelve days investigating the possible link between the birth defects and the pesticides and said they found none.
Florida department of Agriculture investigators charged Ag-Mart with 88 violations and fined the company $111,200. Ag-Mart also came under fire last week by agriculture officials in North Carolina who cited the company for 369 pesticide violations between two of its farms. According to the Post, the bulk of the violations concern worker safety protections from pesticides and residues, similar to those found on the Florida farm.
Ag-Mart is contesting the violations in both North Carolina and Florida. Ag-Mart President Don Long went to great lengths for reporters to declare that officials are using imprecise information to back the charges. Although officials in Florida were able to collect the pesticide application details such as the time, date, location and type of pesticide used, they cannot with complete certainty determine the exact location of every worker at any given time since farmers are not required to keep such records, says Ag-Mart. The charges however, are based on Ag-Mart’s own estimations of where workers were and when.
Gregg Schell of Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, a non-profit farmer advocacy group, has tangled with Ag-Mart in Florida over farmworker wages and housing. “’You put the two investigations together and it belies what Long has said about worker safety,” he said. “’They’re interested in the bottom line, and worker safety is secondary.”
Inspired by the Florida case of birth defects in farmworker children and in support of farmworkers everywhere, a lawsuit was filed on June 7, 2005 against the U.S. EPA for failing to protect a generation of America’s most vulnerable children that face increased risk from exposure to hazardous pesticides. The suit was filed on behalf of the children by a coalition of farm workers, environmental and public health groups including Beyond Pesticides, charging the agency with ignoring the special risk to children growing up surrounded by the swirl of chemical poisons on farms. (See Daily News.)
For a full account of the farmworker birth defect tragedies, see a report by the Palm Beach Post.