Produce Company Behind Popular 'Cuties' Fined Over Pesticide Drift

Cuties (Getty Images)

Kern County agricultural officials announced Tuesday that they are issuing more than $50,000 in fines against two companies for violating pesticide rules in connection with an incident that sickened 37 farmworkers in May.

The firms facing penalties are Sun Pacific, the produce company behind the popular Cuties mandarins and clementines, and Grapeman Farms. Both companies have operations throughout the Central Valley and Southern California.

News of the penalties comes as agricultural commissioners in three California counties investigate several other chemical drift incidents that sickened some three dozen agricultural workers over the summer.

The Kern County fines are the result of an investigation by the county agricultural department that found the companies' use of two pesticides near Maricopa on May 5 violated state law.

The penalties are the most expensive fines issued by the county in several years, according to Glenn Fankhauser, Kern County agricultural commissioner.

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"We want to do everything we can to protect the public and the environment," Fankhauser said. "Integral to this is agricultural safety."

The fieldworkers who became ill were harvesting cabbage for the Dan Andrews Farms. That morning, as many as 37 employees complained of an odor that made them sick. Officials say five of them sought medical treatment.

Agricultural officials took foliage samples from fields in the area. Lab tests on those samples confirmed that Vulcan, a pesticide with the controversial chemical chlorpyrifos, and Cosavet DF, which contains sulfur, had drifted a half-mile away, into the area where the cabbage-harvesting employees were working.

Sun Pacific was fined $30,250 for violating five pesticide laws. It had applied Vulcan to a number of seedless tangerine fields starting the evening before the workers got sick.

Investigators said the company improperly sprayed the chemical because it used a nozzle that violated the pesticide company's label guidelines. Growers who use Vulcan are supposed to ensure that their sprays involve droplets that are too heavy to be carried through the air.

"They used nozzles which created a mist which was too fine than was specified on the label," Fankhauser said in an interview.

Grapeman was penalized $20,000 for violating two pesticide regulations. The company applied Cosavet DF to several grape sites an hour before the illnesses were reported.

It was windy the morning the grower used the pesticide, investigators said. The company should not have sprayed the chemicals, given the weather conditions and the possibility they could have drifted to nearby fields.

Representatives of Sun Pacific and Grapeman Farms have yet to respond to requests for comment. Both companies can appeal the fines.

The penalties were announced less than a week after more than a dozen farmworkers in South Bakersfield got sick, possibly because of a chemical drift. Kern County fire officials say 13 people in that Aug. 2 incident were decontaminated after complaining of eye irritation and nausea while working in a garlic field.

Fankhauser says his office is investigating six farm labor contractors, landowners and pesticide applicators in connection with last week's case. Investigators believe Vulcan and Vapam, a soil fumigant, may have gotten those workers sick.

In June, two dozen farmworkers in the Salinas and Watsonville areas were hospitalized after chemical drifts apparently made them sick, incidents that alarmed farmworker advocates.

Growers tied to Dole Food Co. and Driscoll's, a major berry distributor, are under investigation in connection with the Watsonville case.

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