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Study: Sanitary Conditions On U.S. Farms Improving, May Curb Foodborne Illness

New research used data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey to analyze access to toilets, water and handwashing. The research shows that farmers are providing better access.
Esther Honig
Harvest Public Media file photo
New research used data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey to analyze access to toilets, water and handwashing. The research shows that farmers are providing better access.

E. coli and salmonella often ride on leafy greens or vegetables, accounting for about 10 percent of the United States’ foodborne illnesses. The pathogens can be found incontaminated 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.

But farmers across the country are getting better at providing workers access to basic sanitation, and research from Colorado State University shows more farmers are now providing workers with access to toilets and handwashing. And 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 CSU economist and associate professor Anita Alves Pena, who had help from CSU graduate student Edward Teather-Posadas.

Credit Anita Alves Pena and Edward Teather-Posadas. Colorado State University

The two analyzed data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey and found 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 increased to between 90 and 95 percent, Alves Pena said, though that data is only available from 1999 onward.

The survey collects yearly data by traveling to agricultural worksites across the U.S.

Alves Pena noted that there are some limitations to the data because the survey only asks yes or no questions, so there’s no information on details like whether he bathrooms are good condition.

Access to bathrooms and handwashing stations vary depending on the region and worker demographics, Alves Pena said. Immigrants, both documented and unauthorized, are less likely to have access to water and sanitation compared to workers who were born in the U.S.

She said immigrant workers tend to be more disadvantaged, meaning “lower education and limited English-language background.”

The study was published in April in the Journal of Agromedicine.

Follow Esther on Twitter: @estherhonig

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media

Esther Honig