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Study Finds Improved Conditions On US Farms, May Curb Exposure To Foodborne Illness

Esther Honig for Harvest Public Media
New research from CSU shows farmers are providing workers with better access to sanitation and drinking water than in years past.

Each summer news of foodborne illnesses from crops like lettuce and spinach make national headlines. According to the Center for Disease Control, 10 percent of outbreaks come from vegetable crops, and E. coli and salmonella are the common culprits. These pathogens can be found in contaminated manure, water and on the hands of those harvesting the crop — especially if they don’t have access to proper bathrooms or a way to wash their hands.

New research by economist Anita Alves Pena, an associate professor at Colorado State University, and graduate student Edward Teather-Posadas, shows that farmers have gotten better at providing their workers with access to basic sanitation. That’s vital for helping to prevent potentially lethal outbreaks.

“These are same workers who are touching your food that you're finding at the supermarket. It’s definitely something we should be concerned with,” said Alves Pena.

Credit Anita Alves Pena from Colorado State University, and graduate student Edward Teather-Posadas
Data from NAWS was used to analyze workers’ access to toilets, water and hand washing over time.

By analyzing data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey, or NAWS, the researchers were able to determine that nearly 95 percent of workers in 2014 reported having access to bathrooms and handwashing. In 1990, that number was only about 80 percent.

Additionally, access to drinking water for workers has also increased, though that data is only available from 1999 onward.

“We see that about 90-95 percent of workers are reporting that they do have access (to water),” she said.

Every year since 1989, NAWS has collected data by traveling out to worksites across the U.S. to survey workers. Alves Pena notes that there are some limitations to the data because the survey only asks workers yes or no questions; there’s no information on details, like if the bathrooms are good condition.

Access to these things can vary depending on the region and, as Alves Pena found, on demographics of the workers as well. According to her research, which was published in the Journal of Agromedicine, immigrant workers — documented and undocumented — are less likely to have access to water and sanitation compared to U.S. workers. She said immigrant workers tend to be more disadvantaged.

“What I mean by that is lower education and limited English language background,” she said.