Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ag-Mart workers take the stand

On Wednesday two former Ag-Mart employees finally took the stand in the state's protracted enforcement case against the company accused of hundreds of violations in the largest pesticide case in North Carolina history.

News & Observer photo

Francisca Herrera and Abraham Candelario are the parents of Carlitos Candelario, the little boy whose birth defects stunned the state and tipped investigators off to a pattern of problems. Since the state began investigating the case in 2006, there have been dozens of court hearings, task force meetings, legislative hearings, and many other opportunities for attorneys and "experts" to debate the merits of the state's case, but until yesterday none of the affected workers had been heard. From the Raleigh News & Observer:
Herrera, 22, said she was often told to work in fields that were still wet with pesticides. She said her supervisors ignored her complaints of frequent headaches and stomach pains. "The boss would always be scolding us and telling us that we came to this country to work, not to rest," she said in Spanish. (Source: Raleigh News & Observer article)
Whatever the relative strengths and weaknesses of the state's case against the tomato giant, it was gratifying to finally hear from those whom the case actually affected. Carlitos stayed quiet for two days in the hearing room as his parents waited for their turn to testify. But as his mother took the stand, he cried at being separated from her, and his audible wails outside the hearing room underscored his presence in the hearing.

The Ag-Mart case, at its core, is not about re-entry interval violations, record-keeping requirements, or worker intimidation. It's about what can happen when we use, misuse, or misunderstand the use of toxic chemicals, whether to grow our food, change our environments, or manufacture the consumer products we use every day. With or without negligence, with or without malfeasance, toxic chemicals get into our bodies, and sometimes cause irreperable harm. Whether or not the state collects its $100,000 from Ag-Mart, we need to be looking much harder at the trade-offs we're willing to make for a cheap food supply.

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