Archive for the ‘farm-worker issues’ Category


Friday, October 14th, 2011

The culprits, this time.

Reading "USA Today" online, I found an article detailing the repercussions of the recent/ongoing outbreak of disease linked to cantaloupes coming from one specific farm in Colorado. That operation, Jensen Farms, re-called its fruit in mid-September. The Food and Drug Administration and the Seattle-based Institute for Environmental Health have not yet found the root cause of the outbreak. Since the normal shelf life for cantaloupe is ~two weeks, none of the Jensen Farm product should still be in stores. And no other sources have been implicated. Nonetheless, cantaloupe producers in California and Arizona, the two states with the largest crops of this fruit, are seeing sales plummet 80% or more.

That probably shouldn't surprise us. Spinach sales, devastated by the 2006 E. coli outbreak, are still down nearly a third in one California county.

As of October 12, the current outbreak had led to 116 illnesses and 23 deaths, making it the deadliest in more than a quarter century. There was another outbreak in Texas in October of 2010; that one was related to celery and resulted in 10 total illnesses and five deaths.

I went to several online medical sites to refresh my memory on Listeriosis. When I dealt with infections from this bacteria it was in immuno-compromised patients. Listeria is found worldwide, often in association with farm animals, many of which are otherwise healthy carriers of the bacterium. People can also be carriers and perhaps five to ten percent of us have Listeria in our bowel flora.

There are roughly 2,500 US cases of Listeria infections yearly and about a fifth of those infected die. Most are isolated cases, not major outbreaks The bacteria isn't transferred from person to person with the exception of pregnant women and their fetuses or newborn babies.

This is a foodborne illness, most commonly associated with improperly processed deli meats or unpasteurized milk products.

About 30% of all reported US cases occur in pregnant women. As opposed to the majority of us, who may have nonspecific symptoms, or none at all, pregnant women can transmit the infection to their fetuses or to their newborn infants. They also may have minor symptoms, if they are otherwise healthy, but Listeria can lead to miscarriages, stillbirth, premature birth or, potentially, to serious disease or death of newborn babies.

Others at higher risk for serious disease when infected with this bacterium include the elderly, diabetics, cancer patient, AIDS patient, those with significant kidney disease and anyone on immunosuppressive drugs.

It's tough to diagnose Listeria infections: the most common signs and symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and/or diarrhea. There are no reliable tests for the bacteria, so the diagnosis is difficult in the absence of a history of exposure to a potentially contaminated food source during an outbreak.

Most of us clear the infection without any treatment; those at higher risk should be considered for immediate IV antibiotics and consultation with an Infectious Disease specialist is recommended (and if a pregnant woman has the inception, an Ob-Gyn specialist and a Pediatrician should be involved.

Great tomatoes: memories or not?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Here's what they look like in the supermarket

When I was a kid in Wisconsin, we used to have "beefsteak tomatoes" several times a week. Then I went off to college and medical school, then residency and fellowships and, eventually, the Air Force. At some point I realized I wasn't eating tomatoes as often and, when I did, they just weren't the same.

We raised our own back in large pots on the back patio two years ago, bought a few at farmers' markets and some vine-ripened tomatoes at a supermarket. The taste, in all cases was much, much better than the standard grocery-store tomato, but I hadn't thought much about the reasons.

Than a friend, knowing about my blog, suggested I buy a book called Tomatoland, written by Barry Estabrook. The back cover advance comments included one by Ruth Reichel who was Editor in Chief for Gourmet Magazine for ten years (it went out of business in 2009) and has been restaurant critic for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She felt the original Gourmet article, "The Price of Tomatoes," (which was expanded to become the book) was the one she was most proud to have published during her tenure.

There are two basic themes to Tomatoland: one is that the "industrial tomato," grown in Florida and accounting for a third of all the fresh tomatoes grown in this country (and a much greater percentage of those available in the supermarkets from October to June) is bred for almost everything except taste. His detailed exploration of the Florida tomato, whose attributes are tightly controlled by a state tomato committee, explained what I had known for some time. They add little to salads except for color.

But here's what they look like when they're picked

That especially excludes taste and nutritional benefits. The one thing the modern industrial tomato has over its 1960-era predecessors is sodium; it has considerably less vitamin content and less calcium, according to Estabrook. He has won two James Beard awards, one for his blog I went to that website and read a recent post which brought me back to the second theme of Tomatoland: the abhorent conditons endured by our migrant farm workers.

There are, according to that post, 400,000 of those low-paid laborers, 70% of whom are estimated to be undocumented. Florida had virtual slavery with crew bosses picking out and often holding workers in dismal settings (locked in a truck, for instance). That situation, has gradually improved in some aspects at least, in  large part due to the efforts of a worker coalition. But Estabrook's recent post said many of the migrant farm hands/pickers skipped working in Georgia this year after a new law mirroring Arizona's harsh legislation was put into place.

So Georgia was short 11,000 farm workers and the farmers were in danger of losing $300,000,000 worth of produce. The governor, who pushed for the new law a few months ago, is now offering those vacant farm jobs to unemployed probationers. The problem is the work is tough and often reuires experience, so the newly employed group is quitting in droves.

Read the book; it's an eye-opener.