Unsettling news has emerged to serve as a reminder that shoddy worker conditions aren't too far removed from food safety problems. According to the Denver Post, the owner of Jensen Farms – the cantaloupe producer linked to last year’s Listeria outbreak, referred to as the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in almost a century – has been fined $4,250 for renting unsanitary motel rooms to migrant farmworkers. Apparently the workers aren’t Jensen employees, like that matters.
To clarify, a woman who answered the phone at Jensen Farms told the Post that the owner’s (Eric Jensen’s) rented rooms were separate from the farm and that none of the workers housed there were employees at Jensen Farms. But that didn't make the conditions any less deplorable. The Department of Labor (DOL) said the rooms were overcrowded, had no beds and no windows that opened, no smoke detectors or laundry facilities, and were "unsanitary."
Apparently Jensen claimed he was exempt from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), which sets standards for acceptable living conditions for migrant workers, because he was an innkeeper. But DOL officials found his argument unconvincing, since the motel was closed to the public for most of the year and didn’t have a phone number for people to call and reserve a room.
The Denver Post writes:
Farmworker Justice president Bruce Goldstein said farms that house workers in unsanitary conditions are more likely to use unsanitary farming practices in general.
"Unsafe conditions for farmers in the field will mean unsafe produce for consumers in the supermarket," said Goldstein, whose advocacy organization helps farmworkers improve their wages and working conditions.
Goldstein was a panel speaker at FIC's 2011 conference, where he talked about the conditions of farmworkers and how difficult it is for them to be whistleblowers even when there are egregious violations.
Shame on Eric Jensen for thinking he could skip out on treating workers with the integrity they deserve as suppliers of the food we eat. It's unknown whether the recent Listeria outbreak or a separate complaint led to the investigation, but it's a good thing these unfortunate (yet not too uncommon) conditions have been brought to light.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.