Updated 1 p.m. Aug. 1, 2017
Two firms affiliated with the Dole Food Co. and another tied to Driscoll's, a major berry distributor, are under investigation in connection with a release of insecticides, fungicides and other chemicals believed to have sickened raspberry workers in Watsonville in late June.
A Santa Cruz County official released the names after a California Public Records Act request by KQED following several refusals by the county's agricultural commissioner to identify the firms tied to the June 29 incident near Highway 152, which caused some of the workers to vomit.
The agricultural commissioner is investigating Coastal Berry North, Garrett Farms, FMG Farm Contracting and Los Amigos Harvesting, according to Jason Hoppin, a Santa Cruz County spokesman, who stressed that the companies' inclusion in the investigation does not imply guilt.
Coastal Berry was bought by Dole in 2004 and operates under the name Dole Berry Co., according to Dole spokesman William Goldfield. Dole Berry uses FMG as a farm labor contractor, said Goldfield.
Garrett Farms does work for Driscoll's.
Word that major produce firms were tied to a local investigation into potential pesticide illnesses prompted a strong response from farmworker advocates.
"It's really concerning and it's really disappointing that large-scale growers put the health of farmworkers and even the communities surrounding agricultural fields at risk in order to grow the large amount of berries that they grow," said Lucia Calderon, an organizer for Safe Ag Safe Schools, a coalition of groups that aims to reduce the use of dangerous pesticides in the Monterey Bay area.
The owner of Garrett Farms, the firm that works for Driscoll's, was not happy his company's name was identified in connection with farmworker illnesses.
"We're disappointed in the decision to name Garrett Farms as part of this ongoing investigation, as formal conclusions have not been reached," Steve Garrett said in an email.
The company is cooperating with the investigation into the incident that took place in a field near his farm, Garrett said.
"We greatly respect all agricultural workers, and value their contribution to the Watsonville community. Our thoughts are with those workers involved in the incident, and we hope for their quick recovery," Garrett said. He added that the farm is family-owned and a long-standing member of the area's agricultural community that strives to make safety a "number one priority."
Driscoll's issued a similar statement.
"Our thoughts are with those farmworkers who became ill, and we hope for a quick recovery," the company said in an email.
"We do know that the incident occurred in a field near one of our independent growers. We have been in contact with the involved operations to understand the circumstances behind the incident and to provide any needed support," the statement reads. "Driscoll's is committed to working with independent growers who not only adhere to all applicable local laws but also strive to make safety a number one priority."
Goldfield, the Dole spokesman, said in an email Tuesday the six workers taken to the hospital all worked for FMG.
While the FMG workers were picking raspberries, Goldfield said, an employee from another company working on a neighboring block began to spray a pesticide mixture.
The Watsonville incident was one of two apparent chemical-drift cases in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in June that sent a total of 24 agricultural employees to the hospital, alarming labor experts and advocates for farmworkers.
Monterey County's agricultural commissioner is investigating a release that may be responsible for sending 18 celery workers to the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System's emergency room after some of them became ill on June 22.
The county identified Tanimura & Antle as the company it’s investigating in connection with that incident.
Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner Juan Hidalgo refused several times to release the names in the Watsonville case.
Hidalgo initially said that the growers his agency would interview might not feel comfortable talking to investigators if they were publicly identified.
On July 5 Hidalgo said he would release the names after those interviews.
"We hope to conclude interviews late next week at which point I would be able to release the name of the operation under investigation," Hidalgo wrote in an email that day.
However, when asked to identify the growers close to two weeks later, he refused again. "The names of the companies involved as well as conclusions reached in this case will be available once the investigation is complete," he wrote on July 17.
When KQED reminded him of his email, suggesting he would release the names after interviews, Hildago again refused. "I feel it is essential to maintain the integrity of the investigation," he wrote July 18.
That lack of disclosure has bothered farmworker advocates.
"We believe that it's the public's right to know what growers are hurting our farmworkers and our communities," said Calderon from Safe Ag Safe Schools. "We are really concerned that it took so much effort just to get that simple information out. By not releasing the information of the growers, they were protecting identity of ... Driscoll's."
Story updated to include new information about the two companies tied to the Dole Food Co. that were involved in the June incident near Watsonville.