The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Capitalism's dirty food

Dec 15, 2003

In early November, an epidemic of hepatitis-A spread from one Chi-Chi's restaurant outside Pittsburgh, sickening at least 578 people and killing three.

The CDC, Centers for Disease Control, traced the early-November outbreak to uncooked scallions – green onions chopped into the restaurant's salsa sauce. The restaurant had stored bunches of scallions together in large pails of ice water. One researcher called it "hepatitis soup."

But the restaurant's unsanitary practice was no more than the tip of the iceberg. The CDC first said, and the media reported this heavily, that the onions were shipped in from Mexico – although they did not name the suppliers. Thus the first reports played into that current of opinion which is prejudiced against Mexico and Mexican workers.

However, there is more to the story, which is still developing – but this part is getting very little coverage. The Mexican suppliers are contractors, and sometimes the exclusive contractors, for big U.S. food distributors. It's the U.S. distributors which make their big profits by turning a blind eye to poor sanitation in the fields under their control – and to child labor.

According to the CDC, in poor countries like Mexico, without adequate sewage treatment, without reliable clean water, hepatitis-A is a common childhood disease. The children who live through such infections are immune as adults. But when children who are sick are used as laborers in the fields, it's not only possible but likely that some of the crops they handle will be contaminated.

The problem is compounded when grower companies provide less than adequate sanitation facilities for field hands. And, again, that's a reason for big U.S. growers to go to less developed countries – to take advantage of their poverty and avoid health regulation, as well as hiding their responsibility behind shadow or captive "foreign" corporations.

Of course, these same companies sell unhealthy produce grown in this country – witness the regularly-recurring outbreaks of E-coli poisoning.

The problem is not where the produce was raised – it's who controls the raising of it: U.S. capitalism.