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Can Healthy Food Come from Unhealthy Workers?

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I wasn't surprised when the Associated Press reported last week that Colorado-based Jensen Farms had been fined for housing its workers in unsanitary, unsafe conditions (workers had little choice but to crowd into company-owned "motel" rooms that lacked beds, laundry facilities, and smoke detectors). After all, the huge cantaloupe farm had been found responsible for last fall's deadly listeria outbreak - a major food safety oversight that killed at least 30 people, made 146 people sick, and soured melon season for farmers around the nation by planting a fear of cantaloupes in the minds of many eaters.

And although the AP story reads, "The fine was not linked to the outbreak," it's clear that there are links between food safety and the treatment of workers.

The Denver Post has since reported:

 The Food and Drug Administration said its 'root cause' probe at the southeastern Colorado packer showed multiple places where normal background levels of listeria likely bloomed into deadly concentrations, from a dump truck to a produce washer designed for potato farms.

In other words, there is evidence that the company cut corners when it came to controlling bacteria, and it's likely that workers who were left to live in rooms without beds were the product of the same kind of "cost-cutting" measures. They probably weren't exactly empowered to speak up about the lack of sanitation they undoubtedly witnessed.

We - consciously or unconsciously - expect that the people on the so-called front lines of food production will be invested in creating a product that will, at the very least, not make us deathly ill. Increasingly, that appears not to be the case. In fact, the more I hear about workers in the food system and the challenges they face, the more I realize, that's probably low on their list of concerns (after avoiding dehydration, heat exhaustion, injury, or getting covered in pesticides).