UPDATE, July 23, 2016: We followed up on what’s happened since we first told you about the complicated networks of labor, trade and regulation that carry meat, produce and other products to our tables. An updated version of the original episode can be heard below.
In December, Reveal will dedicate an hour to stories about food, looking at the complicated networks of labor, trade and regulation that carry meat, produce and other products to our tables.
We’ll upend your ideas about what kind of chicken is most susceptible to salmonella, unveil the secret history of pesticides that fuel the modern strawberry industry and look at a workers movement in Florida that’s transformed the tomato-picking business from the ground up.
Host: Al Letson
Executive Producer: Kevin Sullivan
Executive Editor: Susanne Reber
Head of Studio: Christa Scharfenberg
Lead Sound Designer and Engineer: Jim Briggs, with help from Joe Plourde
Reporters: Katharine Mieszkowski, Reveal
Lead Show Producer: Delaney Hall
Producers: Stan Alcorn, Julia B. Chan, Peter Haden, Delaney Hall, Jonathan Miller, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah, Laura Starecheski, Amy Walters and Jillian Weinberger
Show Editor: Taki Telonidis
Digital Editor: Julia B. Chan
Editors: Andy Donohue and Amy Pyle, Reveal
Senior Management for CIR: Joaquin Alvarado and Robert J. Rosenthal
Senior Management for PRX: John Barth, Kerri Hoffman and Jake Shapiro
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Take any food on your plate. Everything we eat has passed through dozens of hands. Sometimes multiple countries. Food connects us to vast and complicated networks, but whenever you’ve got big networks you’ve got big problems. There’s health.
Speaker 2: Almost 100 people sick tonight in 23 states and the source of the illness is being traced to-
Al: There’s labor.
Speaker 3: We conducted 30 investigations of strawberry growers and fully 26 of them were found in violation.
Al: Wow. Only four of them were actually doing the right thing. There’s also people trying to fix old and stubborn problems.
Speaker 4: When somebody’s treated with respect. When their dignity is highlighted as a central piece of the work place, it’s really powerful.
Al: Food networks. That’s on the next Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:01:06] out of the way. You might get run over! What’s the matter with you! Blocking traffic like that!
Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:01:11] CLO.
Al: It’s 5:00 AM and it’s still dark out here at the San Francisco wholesale produce market. There’s a stampede of trucks and forklifts carrying loads of fresh fruits and vegetables to and from the warehouses. This is where the grocery stores go to grocery shop. In the Bay area this wholesale market is a place known for local goods, but in order to provide us with certain seasonal foods year round, vendors buy from farms all over the world.
Speaker 7: We got some asparagus from Peru.
Speaker 8: Eggplant and the squash out of Mexico.
Speaker 9: Thyme and tarragon comes from Israel.
Robert: Products come as far China, Nicaragua, Chile and all that.
Al: That’s Robert from Yet Chung, a specialty produce vendor. Are you guys known for any products specifically?
Robert: In this market nobody really have is the Asian product that we carry. For example lotus root, Shanghai bok choy, ginger, pure garlic, all that. It travels by boat. It takes a few months to get here. Of course, once it gets here it got to go through custom.
Al: Here we are standing in a place where local and international foods are processed side-by-side. A place that connects farmers to the general public. We’re surrounded by towering stacks of vegetables, neatly packed boxes of fruit and an army of people moving it all around us. These workers aren’t your normal 9-to-5-ers.
Bob: I’m Bob Pizza, owner of What a Tomato Produce Company.
Al: When Bob’s not selling tomatoes, he’s competing in international drag boat races and he holds a world record. You might not wonder about a guy like Bob, who gets your tomatoes onto the truck, or the person who unpacked a boatload of ginger.
Spencer: Hi, my name is Spencer Levy. I am the banana ripener for Earl’s Organics.
Al: I didn’t even know that was a thing, but there are people who ripen your bananas.
Spencer: We’re like a triage for vegetables and fruit. After it’s picked it’s starting to die so it’s up to us to get it to the customers at the best life expectancy for everybody.
Al: A cast of thousands is responsible for the food we enjoy every day. They’re all a part of this vast network of systems and processes that are pretty much invisible to us when we do our shopping for the week. The American supermarket has it all because of engineering, cheap transport, hard work and government regulations that are supposed to keep our meals safe. In the next hour, we are going to meet a few more people and explore the hidden every day networks that get our food to that neat display at your favorite store. That’s where we’re headed next.
Here we go. Three, two, one. Chicken has taken over the world. Chicken is no longer just the centerpiece of special Sunday dinner. It’s pretty much taken over the whole week. Americans eat a whopping 85 pounds of chicken per capita every year. It’s become the most popular meat in the country as many of us have begun eating less red meat.
Katherine: That’s a lot of nuggets.
Al: That’s Reveal reporter, Katharine Mieszkowski.
Katherine: Hi Al.
Al: Hey! Right now we are standing in front of a refrigerated case of chicken in our local grocery store.
Katherine: It’s a staggering amount of chicken, I’ve got to say.
Al: It’s a lot of chicken.
Katherine: Wings, breasts, thighs, party wings.
Al: You can’t go wrong with party wings.
Katherine: You’ve got to go for the party wings.
Al: We are here because we wanted to talk about the S word. I feel a little weird saying this in a grocery store, but we want to talk about salmonella. Tell me a little bit about salmonella.
Katherine: Salmonella is this bacteria that can live peacefully in the chicken’s gut when the chicken is alive. It doesn’t really usually bother the chicken that much, but it can make us really sick if it’s on our meat when we eat it.
Al: How sick
Katherine: A lot of people think it’s just an upset stomach, but actually if the infection moves to your bloodstream it can kill you.
Al: How prevalent is salmonella in chicken?
Katherine: The amazing thing is that about 25% of the chicken pieces that you see here are probably infected with salmonella right now.
Al: That’s legal?
Katherine: Yeah. It’s actually legal to sell chicken that’s contaminated with salmonella in the US. It’s kind of amazing. A couple years back there was a major outbreak. It was linked to this big California chicken producer, Foster Farms. It went on for over a year and people from 29 states got sick. The strains of the bacteria were antibiotic resistant.
Speaker 14: It was fever, nausea, cramps, diarrhea. If you’re having that within three days of eating chicken you want to make sure you get seen. If you’re very young, very old and have a-
Katherine: The big surprise? The plants were meeting the federal rules about salmonella at the time of the outbreak. The big producers tend to be pretty good at that, but still hundreds of people got sick. Since then the company has spent millions to clean up it’s act, but the outbreak raised a lot of questions about how safe our chicken is.
Al: Since that outbreak there’s been a lot of awareness about what happens with the big producers, but we wanted to find out what’s going on within the whole system. We sent Katharine out on a road trip to see if she could find any salmonella-free chicken.
Katherine: By looking at every step in the process, we found a gaping hole in our food safety system. Most of us still get our chickens from big poultry companies, but there are other options. If you’re hardcore you can raise them yourself in your backyard. Then there’s the locavore movement. Buying local chicken from smaller farms. We went to one of them. Gunthorp Farms in northern Indiana. We met Greg Gunthorp, a fourth generation farmer who sells pasture-raised chickens.
Greg: They come in as day-old and then they spend three weeks here in the brooder barn and then we put them out in the pasture. These will be one week tomorrow.
Katherine: Greg sells his chickens as an alternative to the factory-farmed birds.
Greg: There are several things that make our chickens different. Our chickens get to be outside on pasture. We air-chill our chickens. They never get antibiotics. They’re processed without chlorine. For the larges part of the year they’re delivered fresh within a couple days of when they’re slaughtered.
Katherine: Inside the barn Greg shows us the baby chicks who have already had quite a journey. They started as eggs at a breeder barn. Then they went to a hatchery where they hatched. As innocent as these chicks look, they may already have picked up salmonella at either place. Greg’s first line of defense against salmonella? A vaccine.
Greg: We put just a very small amount of water in the bottom of it and then put the vaccine in it and then you put droplets over them and then they peck the droplets off from each other.
Katherine: That vaccine’s not 100% effective. Which means they could still get salmonella when they’re turned out on the pasture when they’re a few weeks old. It’s nice for the birds that they get to roam around under a big, open sky, but it’s also another place where they can pick up the bacteria from wild birds, rodents, or each other. Up to this point there has been absolutely no government regulation of salmonella in these birds. That’s because food safety inspectors can’t set food on Greg’s pastures. Here’s Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, an official at the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA.
Dr. Engeljohn: Here in the United States that authorities that my agency has begins at the slaughterhouse. Our authorities start there. We do identify that there are interventions that establishments can take that do focus on farm controls. They can build those into their operations, but we don’t regulate that.
Katherine: On the farm there’s no mandate to try to stamp out salmonella. Anything Greg does to fight it is up to him, but inside the slaughterhouse is a different story.
Greg: We’re in the Kill Room.
Katherine: Greg shows us how live birds are transformed into plucked and eviscerated chickens floating in an anti-microbial wash. It’s pretty gory. Here blood drips on the floor. Over there is a discarded chicken foot.
Greg: We’ll hang them up on these shackles over here on our kill conveyor. Victor will stun them then he’ll bleed them and they’ll ride around here. We’ll throw them into the scalder here. This machine over here, the plucker, actually takes the feathers off.
Katherine: Along the way there are lots of chances for salmonella to pass from one bird to another. It may be on their feathers, skin or feet, but it can also escape from their guts when they’re eviscerated. Greg’s daughter Kara described to us one of the many ways the workers are trying to keep the bacteria in check as the birds move down the line.
Kara: They use a gun to remove the neck and we used to just remove the head and keep more of the neck on, but we found that that was actually a big determination in how much salmonella was on the bird depending on how much of the neck you took off.
Katherine: At the end of the line is a government employed inspector. This is the first time the feds are checking the birds for salmonella. They didn’t do it at the breeder barn, the hatchery, or out on the pasture. They wait until the kill.
Greg: USDA’s going to stand down there on the end and look at every single bird that we slaughter today. They’re going to be looking for two things. They’re going to be looking to make sure that there’s no systemic infection throughout the birds so the bird’s fit for human consumption. The other thing they’re going to look for is that we didn’t contaminate the bird.
Katherine: Today Greg’s plant killed about 1700 birds. The USDA inspector usually just samples one bird. One out of that 1700 to test for salmonella, but the day we visited the inspector didn’t even do that. She wouldn’t speak to us, but the agency said in an email later that, “We just happened to visit when they were transitioning from one sampling approach to another.” Greg’s chicken hasn’t been linked to any illnesses from salmonella, but it turns out small and local is not necessarily better when it comes to stamping out the bacteria. Here’s Dr. Engeljohn again from USDA.
Dr. Engeljohn: It isn’t true to say that all small manufacturers have poorer performance, but overall our data would suggest that poultry is more likely contaminated with salmonella in our smaller operations than in our larger operations.
Katherine: One reason is that some very small plants, like Greg’s, purposely don’t use certain chemicals like chlorine on the meat to get rid of the bacteria. In fact, for them, it’s a selling point. The birds we saw killed were destined for plates later that week.
Greg: We’ll start sorting them and cutting them up tonight and then they’ll all be in restaurants by Wednesday or Thursday. We have about six or eight places that we supply the rest of the places they’ll be served as specials on Friday or Saturday evening.
Al: All right, Katharine, I’ve got to be honest. This is not looking good for our quest to find a salmonella-free chicken to cook.
Katherine: You’re right. The bottom line when it comes to salmonella in chicken in the US is buyer beware. The official advice for consumers focuses on cooking the raw meat thoroughly and handling it safely, but that’s harder than you might think. There’s a danger of contaminating the knife, the cutting board, or even the kitchen sink.
Al: Okay. Should I just opt out of the system? Go DIY, build a coop and start raising my own chickens in my backyard?
Katherine: We wondered that too so the next stop on our salmonella road trip was with a family in Felton, Pennsylvania. They’d raised back yard chickens. That’s about as local as you can get. I guess we don’t have to lock the car. Yeah. It’s easy to picture chickens at Deanna and Dan Gabriel’s place.
Speaker 19: Hello. How are you?
Katherine: Good. It’s beautiful here. A stream runs though the back yard. The chickens even used to drink out of it, but these days there are no chickens here. The Gabriels buy their eggs in the grocery store. Deanna showed us the sorry remains of their chicken coop.
Deanna: It’s a mess now and overgrown after two years, but they were in that wire kennel kind of thing there. We actually ripped the coops down and burned them so the fire-pile is over there, but you can still see the metal nesting box sitting in the middle there, which was inside the coop.
Katherine: The chickens were a family project, although this wasn’t their 14-year-old son’s idea of a good time. He was more into Lacrosse and football. Backyard farming, not so-
Section 2 of 3 [00:14:00 – 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Katharine: He was more into lacrosse and football. Backyard farming? Not so much. Here’s his dad Dan:
Dan: He’s taking care of the chickens and tailed him, flipping up the gate, going back, plays video games, letting him in at night, that’s his taking care of chickens.
Katharine: In July 2013, their son, the Gabriel’s asked us not to use his name, started having chest pains. They said he had trouble breathing and developed 103 degree fever. He was in severe pain. He couldn’t even lie down. At the hospital, the doctors suspected cancer, maybe leukemia, lymphoma. He had a massive growth in his chest.
Speaker 3: I don’t think the doctors really knew what was going on but they knew it was getting worse. They were really concerned so we had the head of the department and a whole bunch of other doctors. They came in and had a round table discussion with us and they were like, we had to do something.
Dan: The initial debrief after the surgery, with the surgeon, he was real concerned. He confirmed that it looked cancerous, he was starting to build up fluid around the sack around his heart and the sacks around his lungs so they put a tube in his chest.
Katharine: When they pulled the tube out, things got even worse.
Dan: Fluid started shooting out across the room. The intern was running around, what do I do, what do I do? I point to him and go, get the head of this ICU right now.
Katharine: It wasn’t cancer. He had an infection caused by salmonella and he hadn’t even eaten the chicken. He just came into contact with the bacteria. It took their son almost a year to recover.
Dan: We took every precaution. We knew the inherent risks of salmonella and thankfully we sought medical treatment when we did.
Katharine: The source of this illness was the chicks that they bought that spring at Tractor Supply, a billion dollar farming mega chain. It was selling chicks from the hatchery in Ohio which had been having trouble with salmonella for years.
Speaker 4: almost a hundred people sick tonight in 23 states and the source of the illness is being traced to a hatchery in Mt. Healthy.
Katharine: When the Gabriels bought the chicks in spring 2013, they had no idea that Mt. Healthy hatcheries had been linked in the past two years to hundreds of illnesses and two deaths. The Gabriel family eventually reached a settlement with Tractor Supply. No one from the farming mega store would talk to us on tape, but a spokesperson said in an email that they didn’t sell chicks from Mt. Healthy Hatcheries in their stores this year.
Jillian: I just wanted to check in and see if we may be able to speak with Rob.
Katharine: Our producer Jillian Weinberger tried to get us in to Mt. Healthy Hatcheries to find out what exactly had gone wrong there, and what were they doing about it but owner Rob O’Hara wouldn’t talk to us.
Speaker 6: No, he’s not going to be available and there’s nobody else here that could do it either.
Jillian: And he knows that we’re speaking with someone who claims that his chicks made their son very sick and we just wanted to give him a chance to respond
Speaker 6: Right, I know and I told him, but he’s not going to be available.
Jillian: Well, thank you.
Speaker 6: Okay, thank you.
Katharine: We did get some answers from the Ohio department of agriculture. Their investigation found that the source wasn’t the Mt. Healthy facility in Ohio. That was clean, it came from other companies who supplied eggs and chicks to Mt. Healthy and those suppliers were out of state.
Al: The Gabriels got the chicks from a store in Pennsylvania who got them from a company in Ohio that was getting the contaminated chicks from their suppliers someplace else?
Katharine: Right. And Mt. Healthy also sells by mail order, so it was turning around and sending the chicks carrying the bacteria all over the country. The Gabriels’ chicks in their backyard were connected to this whole national supply chain.
Al: And it seems like no matter where we get our chicken from, big companies, small farmers or even backyard chickens, there’s still a risk of salmonella and what you found out is that no matter where you get your chickens, the only place it’s regulated is in the slaughterhouse and even there it’s kind of spotty so where does that leave us?
Katharine: The US isn’t the only place that has struggled with this problem. There was a big problem with salmonella in chicken in Denmark, where chicken is also popular. Here’s a commercial from one of their big chicken producers:
[Foreign language 00:18:29]
Back in the 80s, Denmark saw a spike in illness from salmonella, but they completely revamped their system, to make their chicken almost salmonella free. They do it by monitoring for the bacteria before the chicks are even hatched. Screening even the grandparent flocks. Throughout the chickens life, the Danes implement strict bio security measures to keep the birds from getting infected. Over there, entering a barn full of chicks is almost like getting ready for surgery?
Speaker 8: We unlock the door, because we want a close door to the hen house because we don’t want any visitors just entering the house.
Katharine: Farmer [inaudible 00:19:08] showed us what he has to do when he enters the chicken house.
Speaker 8: We have a stop sign on the door that says it’s not allowed to entering at all because of salmonella and [inaudible 00:19:19]. Now I wash my hands and put some soap on … and then we put the coveralls on and the boots. Now we can enter the house and we close the door behind us. If we get salmonella in this house, we have to destroy the whole house.
Katharine: He changes into a different pair of coveralls and boots before he enters each chicken house on the farm. And those boots actually, are one secret to keeping their birds salmonella free.
Speaker 8: We get a test kit at the same time we get a new day old birds. In the [inaudible 00:19:56] there’s a five pair of elastic socks. We can pull over the boots, we’re entering the house so that sticks manure to the socks and those socks mailed to the laboratory and they test it for salmonella.
Al: Danish farmers are using boots and socks to test the poop they step in?
Katharine: You got it. Manure covered socks.
Gross, and kind of genius because bacteria on those socks will reveal if the flock is infected. And when salmonella turns up in a Danish chicken flock, that raw meat can’t be sold in the supermarket. If it is sold, it has to be cooked before consumers ever get near it.
Al: I mean, that sounds like a good plan, I won’t be getting my socks dirty any time soon. Ultimately though, what you’re telling me is that I should plan my next vacation to Denmark if I want to buy raw chicken that’s salmonella free?
Katharine: Pretty much. Denmark produces much less chicken than we do and their chicken is more expensive so the american chicken industry is not looking to follow their lead any time soon.
Al: Where does that leave us in our quest to find a salmonella free chicken to cook for dinner?
Katharine: Things aren’t looking great. For chicken pieces like breast, wings and thighs, there are these new salmonella rules in the works, but the new proposed standard would still allow 15% of chicken parts to be contaminated and the chicken industry says overall, they’re doing a good job. Here’s Dr. Ashley Peterson from the national chicken council:
Ashley: Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day and almost every one of them is done safely.
Katharine: Still, about 200,000 Americans get sick from salmonella in poultry each year.
Al: That’s Reveal reporter Katharine Mieszkowski. She worked on this story with producer Jillian Weinberger. Thanks, Katharine.
Katharine: Thanks, Al.
I know my chicken
You’ve got to know your chicken
Al: When we come back, a spot that’s even further north than [inaudible 00:22:03] farm in Denmark. We head to a US town in the Arctic Circle and find out what it takes to keep fresh fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets year-round. It comes with risks, especially with the farm workers.
That story when we return on Reveal.
From the center of investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, the secret histories and networks behind every day foods.
Speaker 10: Good afternoon, this [inaudible 00:22:44].
Delaney: Hey, could I speak with the manager?
Speaker 10: Hold on.
Al: Recently, one of our producers, Delaney Hall called up a guy named Tome Schizer, he manages a grocery store in Barrow, Alaska, which is a little community way up at the very top of the state.
Delaney: It’s actually the northern most community in the US. You cannot get any further north. I called tom on a very special mission.
Tom: Good afternoon, AC, this is Tom.
Delaney: Which was to find strawberries in the most unlikely place I could think of. What’s Barrow like, how would you describe it to someone who’s never been there before?
Tom: The average annual temperature here is about negative 9 degrees, it’s just, we’re in the high Arctic, so in the winter just about Thanksgiving the sun will go down and not show itself again until the beginning of February.
Delaney: Tom said temperatures in Barrow can drop to negative 57 degrees. Everyone rides snowmobiles, he said it’s like living inside the Discovery Channel. Anyway, I finally cut to the chase:
Tell me about your produce selection there. What kind of produce do you carry?
Tom: Basically a little bit of everything: fruits, vegetables, a full assortment.
Delaney: Okay, do you carry strawberries?
Tom: We do carry strawberries.
Delaney: Even when it’s negative 57?
Tom: Yes, ma’am.
Tom: Yeah, our produce section looks a lot like what you would see in the lower 48.
Delaney: Well, thanks so much, Tom, I really appreciate it.
Tom: You bet.
Delaney: Okay, bye.
Al: At this point, we’re used to living in a world where you can get most produce year round. But let’s just pause and consider that for a min, because this situation defies nature. Strawberries are delicate, they’re prone to disease, they’re hard to ship and yet you can find them pretty much any time of the year, anywhere in the United States.
That’s because farmers have figured out how to grow them all the time in a very particular coastal climate, mostly in California. The story of how this happened, has a lot of twists and turns and it actually reveals something about how dangerous technology from the military finds its way into agriculture. The old idea of swords to plowshares from the bible. This particular story goes all the way back to World War I. Here’s Delaney.
Delaney: The most iconic images of World War I are of trenches dug into the ground, protected by long coils of barbed wire, full of men in combat gear. Trench warfare was ugly and slow. The only way to gain ground was to rush the opposing army’s trench. To break the stalemate, the Germans came up with an idea.
Edmond: They hit upon the idea of releasing clouds of chlorine gas, letting it drift across the trenches to soldiers, allied soldiers on the other side and poison them.
Delaney: This is Edmund Russell.
Edmond: I am a professor of history at the University of Kansas.
Delaney: The Germans hoped the chlorine gas would give then a decisive victory and end the war but instead it lead to a chemical arms race. The US setup a whole new division in the military called the chemical warfare service.
Edmond: Both sides spent enormous effort to develop new and more powerful poison gases, as well as ways to protect against them. This is the war in which gas masks, which are familiar images to us now were first developed.
Delaney: One of the gases developed around this time, was called Chloropicrin, it was a tiny molecule. So tiny that it could actually slip through the filter of a gas mask. Once inside, Chloropicrin would make soldiers throw up.
Edmond: Which would lead the soldier to rip the mask off and expose him to the other more dangerous gases such as mustard gas.
Delaney: As you might expect, these gases were controversial. They could kill soldiers in slow and agonizing ways and a strong breeze could carry them off the battlefields and into nearby towns, hurting civilians. When the war ended, the chemical warfare service didn’t destroy these poisonous chemicals, like you might have expected them to do. Instead, they decided the chemicals needed a good old fashioned re-branding campaign.
Edmond: They started emphasizing these civilian uses of chemical weapons and in fact, said we really should not be called the chemical warfare service. We should be called the chemical peace service, because that’s mainly what we are doing.
Delaney: The chemical warfare service or peace service, came up with an especially novel civilian use for all their leftover chloropicrin, the vomiting gas: they shipped it to the pineapple fields of Hawaii.
Andy: So in Hawaii they were growing pineapples like they do in Hawaii and they were dealing with problems in the soil, pests and diseases that could really just wipe out the crop.
Delaney: Andy Donahue is an editor here at Reveal, he’s our resident strawberry expert and he knows something about pineapples too.
Andy: What’s in the soil are these things called nematodes, which are essentially little worms.
Delaney: The worms would latch on to the pineapples and slow-
Section 3 of 3 [00:28:00 – 00:52:01] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: -tentially little worms.
Speaker 2: The worms would latch on to the pineapples and slowly strangle them. They were devastating to crops. Some pineapple researchers figured maybe they could use this chemical, chloropicrin, to help wipe out the bugs. They used these handheld guns to inject the gas down into the soil. The yields skyrocketed.
Speaker 1: Low and behold they get these amazing results, there’s something like 20 tons more pineapples they could grow per acre. That was the dawn of the era of using these kind of gases in agriculture.
Speaker 2: A whole new kind of pesticide was born, fumigants. A couple decades passed and and the California strawberry industry picked up on this new technology. By the 1970s most strawberry farmers were using fumigants. Once again the yields skyrocketed, only this time it was kind of a problem. Farmers were growing way more strawberries than people were eating, back then people still thought of the fruit as a delicacy.
Dave: The attitude about strawberries was they were something you set aside for a special occasion.
Speaker 2: This is Dave [Riggs 00:29:12], in 1977 he became the advertising manager for what was then know as the California Strawberry Advisory Board. It was a trade group. Dave’s goal was to expand our appetite for strawberries, to turn them from a special occasion fruit into an everyday fruit. He started working on something called tie-ins. That’s when products get together to promote each other.
Dave: For example you might have avocados and salsa and Doritos going together on a big Cinco De Mayo ad.
Speaker 2: Dave set out to fashion tie-ins for strawberries. Strawberries and cereal, strawberry daiquiris, even that icon Cool Whip container with the strawberries on it, that didn’t happen by accident.
Speaker 4: California strawberries, imagine how good they’d be fresh, with shortcake in October or on a frosty morning in November. At any time of year fresh California strawberries would be perfect with almost anything so why [crosstalk 00:30:13]
Speaker 2: In addition to the tie-ins every year Dave would make a pilgrimage to New York to meet with the editors of the 7 largest women’s magazines.
Dave: They call them the 7 sisters of New York, Ladies Home Journal and Redbook and Good Housekeeping and those type of magazines.
Speaker 2: He’d suggest ideas for strawberry related recipes and articles. His annual pilgrimage worked.
Dave: I remember one year I was counting among the big 7 magazines that we actually got more magazine covers than Lady Di which we thought was a pretty good accomplishment.
Speaker 2: The strawberry was the new celebrity fruit. This came after a few other important developments like the construction of the interstate highway system which made it easier to ship fruit, and the invention of the clam-shell packaging which protected strawberries while they were on the road. Andy says the effect of all this history was that Americans started eating a lot more strawberries.
Andy: A lot more strawberries. It went from being this seasonal delicacy that you could get for a few weeks or months near where you lived, to becoming a real year round staple of the American diet. Where in the 1970s the average American ate 2 pounds of strawberries a year, we now eat 8 pounds of strawberries.
Speaker 2: If you multiple that by the population of the US, you get more than 2 billion pounds of strawberries consumed nationally every year. Andy [Donahue 00:31:47] and his team of reporters here at Reveal have spend a lot of time understanding what this means, because the modern strawberry industry was built of fumigants and as our appetite for strawberries has grown, so has the amount of pesticides needed to grow them. Back in world war I people worried that poisonous gases could blow off the battlefield and into nearby communities. 100 years later agriculture fumigants still have the exact same problem.
Andy: Because these are injected into the soil they don’t stay there, they raise up out of the ground and they just enter the air. What we’re beginning to learn, or have been learning actually for quite a while, is that this can have really bad effects on the environment and on human health.
Speaker 2: One fumigant called methobromide has been linked to the breakdown of the ozone layer. It’s not slowly being phased out of use. Other fumigants have been linked to cancer or to birth defects and developmental problems.
Andy: You had women who were pregnant that lived or worked around these fields, the study has show smaller heads, smaller birth weights, those sort of things.
Speaker 2: In one case Andy’s team found that California had allowed growers to use way more of a cancer causing pesticide than scientists thought was safe right next to schools and homes. Now the pesticides aren’t harmful to consumers, those of us who eat them, but for the people who live and work in these communities it’s a different story.
Al: That is what we will get into in our next segment. It takes us to the fields of Florida where farm workers have taken on some of the biggest restaurant chains in the country in order to improve conditions in the field. That story was produced by Delaney Hall and Andy Donahue. It was based on reporting by Kendall Taggart and Bernice Yeung. To read more about the dark side of the strawberry and to learn what you should ask when you’re thinking about buying visit revealnews.org. Stay with us.
Speaker 7: No matter what you make, make it great with strawberries in it. [Soft 00:33:49] and light and pretty and bright and it only takes a minute. Freeze them, shake them, sugar and bake them.
Al: You’re listening to Reveal from the center for investigative reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and today we’re looking at where our food comes from. I think it’s really easy to take for granted that food magically shows up at the grocery store. We know that someone had to get us the food but most of us, at least I, don’t tend to think about it. I just get what I need and go from there. Take for example strawberries, I love strawberries. They don’t last a day in my household.
Crazy thing is, that case that those strawberries came in is the same packaging that farm workers used in the field after picking the fruit. Strawberries don’t go from the field to a processing and packing plant, they go from farm to distribution to market. The work to collect the fruit isn’t easy. The workers have to bend over at the waist to pick, moving at lightning speed. They deal with pesticides and fumigants. It’s very low paid and sometimes it’s abusive and unfair. I didn’t know about any of this until I took a trip to southwest Florida not too far outside of Tampa to see the strawberry fields of the sunshine state.
Al: Jesus Garcia lives in a small trailer with his wife and 4 kids. It’s rainy and there’s no work so he’s home practicing on his keyboard. It’s actually one of the challenges of strawberry work, on any given day you don’t know if you’ll be earning anything.
Jesus: [Spanish 00:35:28]
Al: Jesus is 33. He moved here about 10 years ago from southern Mexico. He says he earns between $1,000 to $2,000 a month during strawberry season. That’s between $5,000 to $8,000 a year. He says the work comes with risks.
Jesus: [Spanish 00:35:48] To begin with when we’re preparing the earth or laying down plastic the very first thing that they do is apply a very strong pesticide. Then once we’re picking again another round of pesticides. It’s pure chemicals, pure chemicals. Sometimes the people who are doing the fumigation don’t care or pay attention to where the workers are even if they’re spraying the same field or a field over.
Al: Jesus says that the people doing the spraying have protective gear but he and other workers don’t.
Speaker 9: [Spanish 00:36:21] You breathe in a lot of gas and sometimes you feel like you’re drowning, like you can’t breathe. Many people are allergic or have different symptoms but they don’t speak up about that because they’re afraid of being fired, or maybe they go to the office but they don’t do anything about it.
Al: Jesus’ main complaint isn’t the chemicals, it’s the other working conditions. Some days he says he’s forced to wait for hours unpaid before the bosses say it’s okay to start working. Other days he says there’s no shade or toilets or drinking water. He says the bosses curse at the workers for moving too slow.
Speaker 9: [Spanish 00:37:02] What we need is just the bosses or supervisors to treat us well. The fact is without us the company isn’t anything, but also without them we can’t do anything. We need to come together, the bosses and the workers, that way we’ll do good work and they won’t discriminate against us. There won’t be mistreatment against the workers, that’s all we really want.
Mike: These are issues that we still struggle with.
Al: Mike [Wheels 00:37:30] works for the Us Department of Labor. He’s in charge of enforcing labor laws on farms across the southeast. He says he sees a wide range or violations like employers paying migrant workers less than minimum wage and providing unsafe transportation and unsanitary housing. Sometimes not paying workers are all.
Mike: In the strawberry industry we tend to have a higher percentage of these violations. To give you a quick example, out of the Tampa district office in 2014 we conducted 30 investigations of strawberry growers. Fully 26 of them were found in violation. As you can tell the compliance rate is pretty dismal, it’s around 14%.
Al: Wow, only 4 of them were actually doing the right thing
Al: This is pretty widespread, it’s not just a few bad apples.
Mike: It tends to be, yes. We’ve been working with the strawberry industry as much as we can to try to get compliance rates up but for whatever reason we are indeed having a little bit of a struggle with trying to bring compliance numbers up in strawberries.
Al: We asked the Florida strawberry grower’s association to sit down for an interview but instead they sent us a written statement. It said they’re concerned and disappointed by the labor department’s finding and that they’re working closely with the department both to fix the problem and to clarify the rules. As for fumigants and pesticides they said their goal is to comply with regulations. Those regulations are getting tougher. Next year the EPA plans to put in place stricter rules for handling chemicals in farm operations across the country.
Farm worker groups say rules alone are rarely enough. Migrant workers hardly ever submit complaints, many are undocumented and others come from places where authorities can’t be trusted. Even if they did complain there aren’t nearly enough government inspectors to go around. There may be another way to go. That’s the sound of workers dropping green tomatoes into white plastic buckets in a Florida fields. For decades Florida’s tomato workers endured the same sorts of abuses Jesus Garcia says he’s experiencing. Not to mention well documented cases of sexual assault, child labor and even modern day slavery.
In the early ’90s a group of migrant workers from Mexico, Haiti and Central America started to organize in the town of [Immokalee 00:40:07] in the heart of Florida’s tomato country. First they tried to convince local growers to improve conditions. They won some concessions but progress was piecemeal and slow. They had another idea, why not go up the food chain to the big supermarkets and fast food restaurants that really call the shots in agriculture today?
Speaker 11: [Spanish 00:40:28]
Al: They tried boycotts, hunger strikes and protests like this one at a Florida Taco Bell in 2003.
Speaker 12: Don’t support the corporations that are part this exploitation.
Al: Finally in 2005 Taco Bell agreed to buy all of its tomatoes from growers who committed to a strict code of conduct, including shade, toilets, clean drinking water and zero tolerance for sexual harassment, child labor or other abuses. Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Burger King followed. So did Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and then in 2014 the really big one, Walmart. In all 14 corporations have signed on to what’s called the fair food program. The Florida tomato grower’s exchange which represents more than 90% of the state’s tomato farms also signed on after years of resisting. By all accounts the change on the ground has been dramatic.
Gerardo: It’s like night and day.
Al: Gerardo Reyes Chavez is in his late 30s. He’s been working in the fields since he was an 11 year old kid in Mexico. For the past 15 years he’s also been a member of the coalition of Immokalee workers. We meet up at the coalition’s office, a big busy room plastered with posters from past campaigns.
Gerardo: When somebody is treated with respect, when the dignity is highlighted as a central piece of the workplace, the workers are not going to unlearn that, it becomes something that is ingrained in to who they are as human beings. It’s really powerful.
Al: Gerardo explains how the fair food program works. First of, the retailers agree to pay an extra penny a pound for their tomatoes, which goes straight to the workers as a bonus. That can translate into $15, even $18 a week, a sizable chunk of money given how little they earn. Even more important than the cash is a 24 hour hotline for complaints, managed not by farm owners but by a non profit third party group called the Fair Foods Standards Council. Gerardo says it’s successful because it comes from the workers.
Gerardo: It’s create by workers, it’s overseen by workers and when there are problems happening the workers themselves become the eyes of the entire Fair Food Program. That is what we call the worker driven social reponsibility. That is the difference, we need to recognize it so that we don’t get confused when we hear corporations saying that they are already doing their part.
Laura: We often say that we are enforcement obsessed.
Al: That’s Laura Safer Espinoza, a former New York State supreme court judge who heads the Fair Food Standards Council.
Laura: One can have all the standards one wants but at the end of the day if there is monitoring and if there is no real enforcement mechanism, you can bet that those standards will look good on paper but they will not impact people’s lives.
Al: She says the monitoring group has investigated and resolved more than 1,100 worker complaints. It has the power to suspend growers from the program if they don’t fix the problems. That’s a big deal, if the growers get kicked out they lose some of their biggest buyers.
Laura: This is a market based solution that has brought Florida’s tomato industry from a place that was known as ground zero for modern day slavery to one of the best workplace environments in US agriculture in the space of 4 or 5 seasons.
Al: Laura says now is the time to take the fair food formula to other crops and other states. In recent months organizers have been fanning out across Florida and up the east coast, looking for places to expand. They’re getting help from some unlikely sources.
John: We are approaching the entrance to one of our farms.
Al: John [Esformes 00:44:41] is a co-CEO of Pacific Tomato Growers, one of the 5 biggest tomato producers in the United States. He shows me one of his properties, 3,500 acres of farm land about a half hour south east of Tampa.
John: This piece of ground here is where we are going to start out newest venture which is our entry into the strawberry business.
Al: Why strawberries? Why change it up?
John: The main reason that we chose strawberries was that as a member of the Fair Food Program in our tomato fields, we were watching on the sidelines as no one was willing to move into strawberries with the Fair Food Program. Quite frankly we wanted to push forward this agenda so we’re growing strawberries.
Al: We go into a bare bones office on the farm to talk. John says he started taking a closer look at how his family business was treating workers after struggling with addiction.
John: I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict. I ended up on the streets of Los Angeles pushing a shopping cart. Part of my recovery involved a lot of introspection.
Al: John says his company has always prided itself on treating its workers fairly. It even joined other growers in a voluntary monitoring program to cut down on worker abuses. In 2007 one of the company’s subcontractors was convicted in a highly publicized slavery case in which a dozen migrant workers were beaten and chained. It drove home the point that companies like his weren’t very good at policing themselves. In 2010 John convinced his people at Pacific to become the first tomato grower to join the Fair Food Program. One of the things you hear in these type of issues is that “I’d love to address them, I’d love to do more but I don’t have the money, I can’t afford it.” What is your response when people say stuff like that?
John: What we’re talking about here with the Fair Food Program are basic fundamental human rights and human dignities. We’re talking about obeying the law. If you need to break the law to make a living and make your business model work, first of all I hope you get caught and if you don’t get caught I hope you make the decision to get out of the business.
Speaker 16: Continue on [Rovland 00:47:14] road for 8 miles.
Al: Here’s where the story comes full circle, remember Jesus Garcia, the farm worker who’s complaining about conditions in the strawberry fields? He’s got a new job at John Esformes new strawberry farm. It’s a cloudy day when I visit, almost cool. There are about a dozen and women inching along the troughs between the raised beds covered in plastic. Buddy Hill’s the farm manager.
Buddy: This is a organic strawberry field. Right now we are just pulling weeds because organics you don’t have herbicides that you need to get rid of the weed. This crew is trying to clean it up and get the weeds out of the way so these little babies can grow.
Al: Jesus, hola. Jesus is there in jeans and t-shirt and a ball cap. What’s it like working here in comparison to the other places that you’ve worked at?
Speaker 9: [Spanish 00:48:08] Here I’d say 100% they’ve treated us well. In comparison to the other companies where I’ve been it’s totally different, the treatment between this company and the other company. The situation was very difficult for the workers in terms of the supervisors in charge of the farm.
Al: He says even the bathrooms are cleaner. It’s still the early days and he doesn’t want to jump to conclusions but so far he’s happy with his new gig. A bit of a postscript, when we sent our questions to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, we asked if they would be interested in joining a Fair Food Program or something like it with third party audits and real market consequences for repeat offenders. They answer, yes. In fact they’re working on something now and hope to have it ready by the end of the seasons. We’ll stay tuned and see what the farm workers think of it. Thanks to Johnathan [Miller 00:49:04] for producing this story.
Networks, logistics, infrastructure, all the various ways that food gets to us, but at the center of these complex systems is one thing, people. Like people those networks can be flawed. I think it’s safe to say that our food networks have issues, sure we can get almost any food we want pretty much at any time of the year we want but at what cost? What we see in Immokalee is in stark contrast to what we see in our grocery stores. Everything in the stores is bright and happy but not so much in the field where life can be pretty tough. Change is possible. The living and working conditions of tomato workers improved after they organized and pushed for reform.
That reform didn’t happen until consumers, everyday people, forced big corporations to see what was going on behind the scenes. The next time you’re at the store and you pick up a container of strawberries, think about the hand that picked that fruit. Ultimately we vote for or against change in our complex food systems with our dollars.
Speaking of strawberries, head over to our website revealnews.org to watch an animation of a brief history of the modern strawberry featuring the voice of our public radio buddy Roman Mars of 99% Invisible. Our show was edited by Taki Telonidis and is produced by Stan Alcorn, Julia B. Chan, Peter Haden, Delaney Hall, Michael Montgomery, Nina Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah, Laura Starecheski and Amy Walters. We had additional help from producers John Miller and Jillian Weinberger and editors Andy Donahue and Amy Pyle. Our lead sound designer and engineer is my man [Breezus 00:51:06], Jim Briggs. Christa Scharfenberg is head of studio, Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.