Food Safety versus Worker Safety

Workers say that the conflict between food safety rules and worker safety in the fields has grown more acute since I first documented it in 2013. As growers strive for the certifications of food safety that large supermarket and restaurant chains require, labor intermediaries are increasingly enforcing rules that restrict workers’ ability to drink. In the book, I explain that all cantaloupe “handlers”—that is, growers and harvesting companies—must undergo mandatory audits to ensure that they are following the California Cantaloupe Association Board (CCAB) guidelines prohibiting the presence of “personal items” in the harvesting area (p. 34, pp. 139-140). Yet the prohibitions on private water bottles are not unique to melon harvesting; they have spread across multiple crops as major grocery and restaurant chains require that their produce suppliers undergo similar “market-access audits.”

Large international chains and retailers—such as Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, Albertson’s, and Costco—require that the companies that supply their produce are compliant with audit schemes based on guidelines drafted by a European trade association, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Primus GFS is a particularly popular audit scheme that is based on the GFSI guidelines. The Primus GFS audit checklists have rules similar to those I describe in the book for the CCAB; in the case of Primus GFS audits, they state that workers should not “eat and drink (other than water) in active harvest areas” and that workers must be “free of… items that may be a source of foreign contamination” (1). According to one small contractor in southern Fresno County, supervisors and employers interpret these rules as prohibiting workers from bringing their own personal water supplies into the harvest area. As major companies selling a variety of crops prepare for Primus GFS audits, restrictions on workers’ drinking appear to be standard across much of the industry.

The proliferation of food safety audits is a vivid example of the privatization of food safety, as a vast industry of third party companies has emerged to audit produce suppliers at the behest of large supermarket and restaurant chains. It illuminates a development with important implications for farmworkers’ safety—the increasingly close partnership between the produce industry and the government in attempting to combat foodborne illness. (Many of the audit schemes are themselves based on the Food and Drug Administration’s 1998 guidelines to avoid foodborne illness, for example. Meanwhile the USDA developed its harmonized Good Agricultural Practices audit scheme at the request of growers, who in fact own the audit scheme). Yet the emergence of private food safety audits also highlights a stark contradiction between the resources devoted by private industry to food safety and those devoted by government to protecting workers’ safety. The resources that private industry has to ensure food safety—and thereby protect their brands—dwarfs those of state and federal occupational safety and health departments. Since outbreaks of foodborne illness first eroded industry profits in the 1990s, the third party audit industry has mushroomed to become a multi-billion dollar global business (2). In contrast, state and federal occupational safety and health departments have witnessed a general decline in their resources and regulatory personnel over the past 30 years (3).

An examination of the kinds of audits harvest companies undergo in a single season serves to illustrate this discrepancy. The food safety supervisor for a large commercial vegetable growing, packing and shipping company, for example, said his company underwent food safety audits “almost every other week.” His company faced audits not only by third party auditors using schemes based on the GFSI guidelines or the USDA guidelines, but also by auditors privately hired by major retailers such as Costco, McDonald’s, and Sysco. Meanwhile, a food safety supervisor for a medium-sized grower in the Central Valley estimated that his company underwent three separate CCAB audits and one Primus GFS audit each season in the cantaloupe alone. In contrast, the company had faced no audits by Cal-OSHA in the preceding three years. Indeed, in fiscal year 2015, Cal-OSHA conducted inspections of 671 farms—a significant decline when compared to the 1,142 audited in fiscal year 2013 (4). Given that there are an estimated 35,000 farms in the state (5), even if they continued at the 2013 pace, Cal-OSHA would be able to audit each farm only once every thirty-one years. 

1. Azzule Systems 2015. PrimusGFS Checklist—Version 2.1.2. Module 2, “Good Agricultural Practices Requirements.” November 12, 2015: 20., accessed June 1, 2016.
2. Stier, Richard F. 2009. “Third-party Audits: What the Food Industry Really Needs.” Food Safety Magazine October/November: 91.
3. AFL-CIO. 2012. Facts About Worker Safety and Health—2012. Washington, DC: AFL-CIO: 4; McGarity, Thomas, Rena Steinzor, Sidney Shapiro, and Matthew Shudtz. 2010. Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA. Washington, DC: Center for Progressive Reform White Paper #1003.
4. Sum, Juliann, Debra Lee and Cora Gherga. 2015. State OSHA Annual Report (SOAR) FY 2015. Oakland, CA: Cal-OSHA, p. 22; Sum, Juliann, Debra Lee and Cora Gherga. 2013. State OSHA Annual Report (SOAR) FY 2013. Oakland, CA: Cal-OSHA, p. 24.
5. Wozniacka, Gosia. 2012. “Farmworkers Sue California over Heat Regulation Violations.” Huffington Post. October 18. /farm-workers-sue-california_n_1982706.html, accessed July 23, 2014.