After years of relative quiet, the past year brought a cluster of incidents—three outbreaks of E. coli in romaine lettuce and a 12 million–pound beef recall thanks to salmonella. The obvious question: Why are all these outbreaks happening now?
The pat answer is the Trump administration won’t enforce updated Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture water testing requirements. I’m not convinced—produce wholesalers have already required farms to test water for years and still do. Dirty water on leafy greens doesn’t explain tainted beef either. Problematic as they are, I don’t think lax federal water testing rules are the root cause here.
Others propose that these outbreaks have been happening all along, and we’re simply noticing them now because of better testing technology and reporting. This is a good caveat to keep in mind when looking at data that stretches out over several years. But our testing and communications abilities haven’t changed that radically in the past 12 months.
What has changed? Immigration policy—specifically, the way Trump’s liberal use of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has diminished immigrants’ sense of security.
Food safety is fragile. Even the most basic practices—making sure crops aren’t getting runoff from feedlots, keeping equipment clean, using clean water, keeping records—take teamwork, training, and consistent follow-through from management. I think consumers and even many folks in the industry take these practices for granted. It sounds obvious to use clean water and wash your hands and keep track of where the food came from.
But to do even the most basic food safety practices, you need workers who can get trained, stay, and put that training to work. Any situation that disrupts the farm workplace, increases turnover, or incentivizes workers to keep quiet and not get noticed has consequences for food safety. And the recent immigration crackdowns are more than disruptive enough to affect farm operations’ safety practices.
Americans have gotten used to thinking of immigrants as a brute manual labor force. I don’t think most of us realize that they’re also the knowledge workers and front-line managers in the food industry, the first line of defense in keeping the food we all eat safe. The bulk of the food industry’s recordkeeping, care and cleaning of equipment, harvest logistics, and more are run by new arrivals to our country.
That’s because native-born Americans aren’t interested in being landless farm laborers. Farm owners often complain that kids these days don’t want to work hard. That’s not what’s going on at all. I live in Fayetteville, North Carolina, next to Fort Bragg—the world’s largest military installation. The 50,000 active-duty soldiers stationed here suggest that young Americans are just fine with hard outdoor work, demanding bosses, low pay, and high risk of injury. The thing that takes farm work off the list of worthwhile careers for most Americans is that it essentially requires spending your life on the road with no benefits and little chance of advancement. Once migrant farmworkers learn English, they tend to find other jobs and settle down. That means America’s farm industry is largely staffed by new arrivals.
That’s why legal and regulatory actions against immigrants are a surgical strike on our food security. Higher worker attrition and fear of being arrested also make it easier for employers to abuse staff, override valid health concerns, and steal wages.
Examples of the connection between working conditions and food safety abound. In Chipotle’s 2015 streak of outbreaks, at least two were traced back to staffers who were forced to work while violently ill. Blue Apron became infamous in 2016 for worker safety problems, and publicly available food safety reports for its California facility show leadership’s carelessness extended into hygiene. A meat plant worker for Smithfield Foods was recently caught urinating onto the floor while on shift. This could be viewed as an act of sabotage, or it could be a logical solution in an industry with a track record of denying workers bathroom breaks. The link between high turnover (often a consequence of poor working conditions) and poor food safety is so strong and so well known within the food industry that some food safety audits, such as Safe Quality Food, downgrade farms and facilities just for relying too much on temp workers—even without visible hygiene problems.
In spite of this, we don’t typically think about working conditions when discussing outbreaks. We talk about lab tests and traceability, but we have a giant blind spot around management responsibility and worker empowerment needed to make those tools meaningful. In formal investigations, we collect data on what bacteria were found where—but we don’t talk about what workplace conditions led to poor sanitation in the first place.
If we’re serious about stopping outbreaks, we need to have that conversation. Currently, the consumer discussion about which farms are safer typically revolves around size. But in my experience, size is a red herring—I’ve seen clean mega-operations and little family farms that’d make you swear off food entirely. There’s only one thing I’ve seen correlate to how clean a farm or food facility actually runs: management’s attitude toward workers.
In my experience, farms that view their workers as people who need time, training, and resources to do their jobs well tend to give it to them. They’re clean, well-organized, and can track where their product went. Those that view their workers as farm equipment that you run and run and run until it breaks down are dirty, flighty, and start resorting to crookedness just to cover their tracks. It’s really that simple.
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published more than a century ago, launched our current era of food consumer protection in the United States. It made the connection between poor working conditions and tainted food explicit. Unfortunately, public response did little to address the root cause—poor working conditions. Sinclair later wrote, “I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.” We need to stop making that mistake—our well-being and farm and food workers’ are one and the same. We can’t protect ourselves without protecting them.
Persecuting immigrants is an easy way to gin up votes from America’s most spiteful citizens. To those who don’t see immigrants as people, it feels like a victimless crime. But that’s not just a spiteful outlook—it’s an ignorant one. When we threaten the people who grow and make our food, we all have to eat the risks.