Immigration and food safety

In the US, outbreaks of food-borne illnesses such as E.coli and Salmonella have hospitalized hundreds of people and disrupted food supply chains. The past year has bought a cluster of incidents, leading to the question: Why now?

While some suggest the Trump administration’s unwillingness to enforce updated Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture water testing requirements is at fault. There are also suggestions that these outbreaks have occurred all along, but better testing technology and reporting means we now know about them. However, testing and communications haven’t improved that radically over the past 12 months, according to Dr Sarah Taber – a crop scientist and food safety auditor.

According to Taber, the key variable that has changed is immigration policy. Specifically, the Trump Administration’s liberal use of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has diminished the sense of security for immigrants.

Immigrants are the backbone of the American food supply chain and to perform even the most basic food safety practices, workers require teamwork, training and consistency from management. However, workers need training and the ability to stay in their job to put the training to work. And situations that disrupt the farm workplace, increase turnover and incentivize workers to keep quiet about unsavory practices rather than speak up have consequences for food safety. According to Taber, recent immigration crackdowns are more than enough to disrupt on-farm safety practices. The regulatory actions against immigrants also lead to higher worker attrition and fear of being arrested which in turn makes it easier for employers to abuse staff, steal wages and ignore health concerns.

Often the conversation on how to stop food outbreaks revolves around traceability, data and sizes of farm, but never around management responsibility and workplace conditions. However. in the food industry the link between high staff turnover and poor food safety is strong and some food safety audits such as Safe Quality Food, downgrade farms and facilities just for relying too much on temporary workers. Despite this, the connection between poor working conditions and tainted food aren’t often made. Investigations focus primarily on collecting data on bacteria, while ignoring conditions for front-line workers.

While Trump may be delivering on a promise to rid the country of illegal immigrants, he could also be putting Americans at risk by reducing safety in food supply chains.