SALINAS CALIFORNIAN

September 1, 2017

 

County health department investigating food safety for field workers

 

Chelcey Adami, The Californian

 

As the Monterey County Health Department looks into claims that a group of temporary field workers were given food that made them ill, it’s also looking more broadly into the issue of food safety for all H-2A visa holders in the area. 

A group of farm workers filmed a video in a field and in the video posted about a week ago, described receiving rotten food with flies and cockroaches on it. They say they are in Salinas and alleged that the food caused some to have stomach infections.

Speaking to the camera, the men implore someone to reach out to the health department to address the issue. 

The Monterey County Health Department reposted the video made by the workers on its Facebook page Thursday afternoon and wrote that the video triggered an investigation.

John Ramirez, director of the Monterey County Environmental Health Bureau, said during further investigation, staff determined that the men in the video are H-2A work visa holders and staying in a Salinas hotel as part of the visa program. 

Under the H-2A program, the employees must be provided housing, food and transportation. 

Staff also contacted the field workers' employer, which has not been identified as the investigation is ongoing, as well as the restaurant that provided the food.

The video came as a surprise to the health department, which doesn’t necessarily have direct regulatory oversight for employee housing in an incorporated area such as Salinas, Ramirez said. 

However, the video alerted the department to an issue that may require joint inspection for food facilities at these state-regulated sites. 

 “The positive part of this whole thing is there’s a segment of the community who may not have had the protections they should have had, but we’re stepping in to get them the protections they should have and make sure they’re treated like everybody else,” Ramirez said. 

The health department has reached out to the state to make them aware of the concern and will also be in contact with the H-2A program to verity which operations are in the area and what their requirements are for food delivery. 

“The state inspector is in Sacramento and we’re here. Because we know they’re in Sacramento, we step in as needed to protect public health,” Ramirez said. 

The health department would like employers of H-2A visa holders to help the department make sure food is being provided in a safe manner.

“Now our focus after this initial investigation is where are these other sites at … We’re fully confident that once the companies who are providing food become aware of this, they’ll help us protect the public’s health,” Ramirez said.

The employer of the farm workers in the video has about 800 H-2A employees in the area, and the health department is working on reviewing where the other employees are housed and how they are fed. 

Investigators will be reviewing not only where the food comes from but also how it is delivered, what containers it is kept in and how soon it is provided to workers.

Unless the temperature is maintained, food becomes dangerous in as few as four hours. 

The health department has not been able to verify the various details mentioned in the video, but Ramirez said that if a doctor determines that a food borne illness occurred, it would be reported to the health department.