News that some Mexican farm workers have been relieving
themselves in fields of cilantro bound for American tables may
worry consumers. But it also raises health issues for the
While presidential candidate Donald Trump, who said "infectious
disease is pouring across the border," may be tempted to make
the quality of Mexican cilantro exclusively a foreign policy
issue, farm worker advocacy groups say this is a problem in
American fields as well.
On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban
on fresh cilantro from the Mexican state of Puebla from entering
the US after a government investigation found human feces and
toilet paper in fields used to grow the herb, according to an
alert issued by the FDA.
The partial ban affects cilantro imported from the state of
Puebla, which the FDA has linked to 2013 and 2014 outbreaks of
stomach illness in the United States. The ban will continue from
April through August in future years unless a company producing
the crop can prove to health authorities that its product is
“Conditions observed at multiple such firms in the state of
Puebla included human feces and toilet paper found in growing
fields and around facilities; inadequately maintained and
supplied toilet and hand washing facilities (no soap, no toilet
paper, no running water, no paper towels) or a complete lack of
toilet and hand washing facilities; food-contact surfaces (such
as plastic crates used to transport cilantro or tables where
cilantro was cut and bundled) visibly dirty and not washed; and
water used for purposes such as washing cilantro vulnerable to
contamination from sewage/septic systems,” according to the FDA
alert released Monday.
According to the FDA alert, US and Mexican health authorities
investigated 11 farms and packing houses in Puebla and found
problems in eight of the farms, including some that had "no
running water or toilet facilities.”
“We have that kind of a problem right here in America,” says
Evelyn Freeman in a phone interview. Ms. Freeman adds, “I grew
up with my parents in the field and when I got out of school I
went in the field. I picked oranges. I experienced where there
wasn’t nowhere to go and you had to go in the field. I minister
to people who are out there and every day I hear from people who
have nowhere to use but the field.”
Ms. Freeman now works as an assistant at the Farm Workers
Association of Florida, a membership organization of 6,500 farm
worker families. The Association addresses wages, benefits, and
working conditions, as well as pesticides, field sanitation,
disaster response, immigration, and other community-based issues.
“We might be a little better [than Mexico] but not enough to be
running our mouth. Not like Donald Trump who’s running his
mouth,” says Freeman. “We got a long way to go.”
Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health
project coordinator at the Farm Workers Association of Florida,
says in an interview that while the EPA has worker protection
standards relating to pesticides and OSHA has standards in place
related to field sanitation, which require that a restroom be
within a quarter mile of the fields, that does not mean American
fields are free of human waste.
“While we do have many clean, good, law-abiding growers in this
country and we don’t want to say this is happening at all farms,
we do hear from many workers, especially pregnant women, that
they either lack any facilities at all, or that the facilities
are too dirty to use and they’d rather use the woods or fields,”
says Ms. Economos.
She adds that while there has been a great deal of attention on
the part of consumers in their own health being affected by food
safety issues like Ecoli and Tuesday’s Kroger recall of
seasonings because they could be contaminated by salmonella,
little attention is given to the issues of worker health.
“Farm workers are exposed to pesticides and have very serious
health conditions in the field,” she says. “These issues affect
the food supply, but also affects the health and safety of farm
workers are risking their health with pesticides every single
Dr. Ed Zuroweste is the chief medical officer for the Migrant
Clinicians Network, whose goal is to improve health care for
migrants by providing support and technical assistance to farm
workers in the field. He says in an interview that the gap
between laws on the books and effective enforcement in the US is
a wide one.
“We [Americans] do not by any stretch of the imagination have a
perfect agro business situation,” says Dr. Zuroweste.
“Especially when it comes to the health and safety of the people
who spend all day, every day, picking our fruits and vegetables.
We could do much, much better than we are.”
Zuroweste says that if a farmer is not providing the proper
sanitation facilities, he can be fined for that. But he adds
that current OSHA regulations "are not strict enough and we
don't have the manpower to enforce the ones we do have."
He says that educating workers is one step toward improving the
situation: "There are regulations in place but workers need to
know their rights and they have to speak up when conditions are
not meeting those standards."