FDA cilantro ban: Why cilantro from Puebla, Mexico is prohibited in the US

FDA cilantro ban: A lack of sanitation facilities in Mexican produce fields has reportedly led to a product ban in the US. But Mexico isn't alone when it comes to field sanitation problems, say US farmworker groups.

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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 farmworkers. 

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 safe.

“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 day.”

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." 

 
 
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