Florida's Rotten Tomatoes

The fields that yield piles of tomatoes also bear heaps of worker misery

| March 24, 2005

Something is rotten in the state of Florida, and the stench is coming from a tomato field in Immokalee.

Three Mexican women worked in the same southwest Florida field with their husbands and lived in the same migrant labor camp. All three became pregnant last year, and all three gave birth to babies who were terribly malformed. Carlitos was born without arms and legs. Jesus was born with a jaw not fully developed, leaving his tongue to flop back in his mouth. Violeta was born without a nose and ear and died a few days later.

The couples worked for Ag-Mart, the marketer of 'Santa Sweets' tomatoes, which apparently require some 30 different chemicals to grow. In an extensive special report on the births, The Palm Beach Post found that between 1999 and 2003 the company was cited three times for violations of pesticide regulations in other fields in Florida -- a state where oversight falls under the allegedly industry-friendly purview of the state Department of Agriculture.

State officials have launched an investigation, and Ag-Mart is 'looking into the issue' as well. It is far too early to peg the families' plights on pesticides. But the newspaper's report raises several disturbing issues. Three of the chemicals used in the field have been shown to cause birth defects in lab animals. While chemicals are tested individually for safety, there is scant information on their effects when combined. And complaints abound that proper precautions -- like not allowing workers into a field for a period of time after pesticides have been used -- are sorely lacking. This in the state that ranks first in pesticides doused per acre.

But pesticides aren't the only hardship workers in Florida's agricultural fields have to contend with. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been hard at work for years to raise awareness of the sweatshop-like conditions facing immigrant workers. The group has brought to light modern-day slavery operations and has been a crucial partner for the religious and students groups that have popularized the movement for farm workers' rights.

This month they scored a huge victory when Taco Bell agreed to pay suppliers one more cent per pound of Florida tomatoes, meaning an earnings increase of about 80 percent. The company stipulated that the boost be passed on directly to the workers.