New and Improved Santa Sweets: ”A Little Less Poisonous!”

October 14, 2005

Plant City’s Ag-mart was just fined a record amount by Florida for forcing workers into dangerous pesticide-laden fields and harvesting produce too soon after applying poisons.

Florida agriculture officials have slapped Ag-Mart Inc., one of the state’s largest vegetable growers, with $111,200 in fines for 88 counts of pesticide misuse.

The “extensive violations” breached regulations designed to ensure consumer and worker safety, according to agriculture documents.

Ag-Mart officials declined to comment Wednesday on the state’s action, which came little more than a week after the company announced it planned to stop using many of the pesticides in its arsenal.

The violations were uncovered during an investigation into the births several months ago of three malformed babies to farmworkers in Immokalee.

But in a report made public Wednesday, the state health department said it could find no link between the agricultural chemicals and the birth defects, which left one baby without arms and legs and another with a cleft palate and severe facial abnormalities. The third baby, born with multiple defects died shortly after birth. The mother of that child lost another malformed baby nearly two years before.

“This report might be more important for identifying what we don’t know than what we do know,” said Jay Feldman of the New York-based National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

The infants’ parents worked in Ag-Mart tomato fields in Florida and North Carolina and lived near each other during the critical time period.

Companies that do not comply with pesticide laws put consumers and farmworkers at risk, she said. Pesticide labels specify how soon a crop can be harvested after chemicals are applied, as well as how soon workers can re-enter the fields.

Sixty-five of the 88 violations Ag-Mart was cited for involve harvesting crops before the seven-day waiting period, in some cases picking the vegetables the day after they were sprayed.
Despite this, routine spot checks did not turn up illegal pesticide residues, according to agriculture officials.

But that does not equate to food that’s safe to eat or a field that’s safe to work in, Feldman said.
For one thing, there are many pesticides — some of them known endocrine disruptors — for which the federal government has not set legal residue limits.

“Given this birth defect cluster and what it suggests, it really should be cause for evaluating whether the agency is looking at the problem in the best manner and whether it needs to do a better job of tracking exposures,” Feldman said.

A Broward County lawyer representing the three families in the case calls the state’s effort “a noninvestigation.”

“Clearly they’re looking for every reason to find no relationship to pesticides. Yet they can arrive at no other explanation,” attorney Andrew Yaffa of Boca Raton said.

Similar fines are reportedly pending in North Carolina, and New Jersey is investigating possible violations in that state.

A day after Florida agriculture officials fined tomato-grower Ag-Mart Produce $111,200 in a complaint citing 88 pesticide violations, agriculture officials in North Carolina confirmed Thursday they had notified the company of at least as many violations in their state.

North Carolina agriculture officials would not elaborate on their findings or the amount of the fine until the company received notice via certified mail, a spokesman said.

An Environmental Protection Agency official in Washington confirmed that in North Carolina, it is alleged that Ag-Mart applied some pesticides more often than allowed by the label. The EPA, along with other federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plans to analyze findings of the investigations in Florida and North Carolina, the EPA official said.

The company, which grows the popular Santa Sweets grape tomato, operates farms in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey and Mexico.

Other investigations continue. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection confirmed Thursday that it, too, is investigating Ag-Mart’s pesticide “use and practices” in that state. North Carolina health officials confirmed this week that they also are investigating Ag-Mart.

What does a company do when it’s under fire for misusing chemicals and putting its workers and customers at great risk, possibly even causing birth defects? It slaps an “Organic” label on its products and touts its goal of ”protecting our most precious resources -the air we breathe and the land we cultivate.”

So, human life does not make the top two precious resources, but farm workers already knew that. And a field that was saturated with chemicals last season can be used for organic produce this year, instantly giving the grower some kind of environmental cred. Nice.

And even as the company appeals the decision for over $111,000 in fines by the Florida Department of Agriculture, Ag-Mart’s president is among an elite group hosting a political fundraiser for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. I bet there’s no chemical residue on the tomatoes at that particular soirée.

Ag-Mart President Don Long is on the 10-member host committee for the Nov. 9 event to be held in Naples.

Invitations listing Long as a member of the host committee have been mailed.

Bronson said Thursday that he does not know who is going to the event, nor does he see a conflict of interest.

“Just because someone has had a fine or someone has had a problem doesn’t mean that they can’t be a part of the system … and that means even a re-election campaign,” he said.

3 Responses to New and Improved Santa Sweets: ”A Little Less Poisonous!”

  1. Libby on October 14, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    Wow, I buy those tomatoes! Not anymore, eh? Thanks for the heads up.

  2. Christina on January 26, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    I was surprised to see Santa Sweets back in Publix stores. I thought they had stopped carrying them after all of this came to light.

  3. Tom Lamb on February 23, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Here is a link to some recent news coverage about the Ag-Mart pesticide(s) and the alleged harmful effects:

    If there is a “link” between the pesticide(s) and the birth defect observed in the child who is the subject of the news article, unfortunately, there may be more cases like this arising out of exposures in the fields of Brunswick County, NC and Pender County, NC (southeastern North Carolina), as well as in Florida and New Jersey.

    Tom Lamb, Attorney



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