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The price of convenience

(article, Kim Carlson)

Got a potluck, or office function, or school shindig coming up? Many of us purchase prepackaged trays of cut fruit, happy to contribute something healthy (fresh fruit) and tasty (same) and convenient (very). 

But now we get the back story.

A reporter for Willamette Week, the chief alternative-weekly newspaper here in Portland, Oregon, recently investigated a local Del Monte plant where, 24 hours a day, workers cut fruit and vegetables into bite-sized chunks for consumers. The article is a reminder that every bit of food we eat has a story, and sometimes that story is unsavory:

bq. It's close to freezing cold inside this football-field-sized warehouse in North Portland. I know because I've spent three days working at the plant, and on a recent Friday at 8 a.m. the thermometer registers 36 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm regretting not having brought a hat to wear under my green hairnet. I can see my own breath and the respiration of the other 24 workers beginning their eight-hour shifts.

bq. A highly unpleasant odor, which will cling to my jacket for days, hangs in the air. It's the smell of freshly diced onions tinged with chlorine, and my eyes sting from the fumes. It's so loud inside the plant that, once production is fully under way, many of the workers will resort to flinging bits of fruit and vegetable at each other to catch someone's attention. When all of the conveyor belts, washing machines, and industrial-strength produce dryers are on, it sounds as if a plane were about to take off overhead.

That’s just the setting for the workers — most of whom are Hispanic, several of whom admit to being undocumented immigrants. There's also the food itself, most of which was grown at Del Monte farms in the same Central American countries the workers come from before being shipped to Portland. Healthy? Maybe not:

bq. A Del Monte fruit cup with four pieces each of pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew and grapes sells for $2.29 at local Jack in the Box restaurants. At least 12 people's gloved hands touched that fruit at Del Monte's St. Johns plant.

bq. I quickly learn that the cold inside the plant attacks workers' toes and fingers first. Our noses run. But nowhere in the three safety videos I'm asked to watch on my first day is there any mention of this unsanitary problem. In one video, a man with a striking resemblance to a young-looking Jerry Seinfeld instructs me in proper hand washing. I'm left to my own devices to figure out how to wipe the snot running down my face without contaminating the rubber gloves I've just cleaned with soap and water.

It’s enough to make you think twice about processed food — even if it's fresh.