March 26, 2005

Produce firm president talks to parents of children with defects

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

IMMOKALEE The president of one of Florida's largest produce companies met Friday with two farmworker couples, the parents of children recently born with birth defects, and told them the firm is interested in determining what caused the catastrophic problems.

Don Long president of Plant City-based Ag-Mart, which markets Santa Sweets tomatoes met the couples for the first time since the birth of the children.

He and company spokesman David Sheon, had no comment after the meeting, which took place at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.

Also attending were the pastor of the church, Father Ettore Rubin; and Sanaida Martinez, who represented the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a social services organization that helps farmworkers.

"The company offered to help the fathers find work here in town after the current tomato work ends, so they won't have to follow the harvest the way they usually do," Martinez said. "That would be the best thing for these children."

Carlos Candelario, known as "Carlitos," was born Dec. 17 with no arms or legs. Jesus Navarrete was born Feb. 4 with an underdeveloped lower jaw and swallowing problems.

A third child, Violeta Rueda, was born Feb. 6 with no nose, an ear missing and no visible sexual organs. She died three days later from massive birth defects.

All six parents worked for Ag-Mart in fields near Immokalee early last year when the three mothers became pregnant.

The Collier County Health Department is investigating possible causes of the defects, which could be related to genetics, nutrition, drug consumption or environmental factors, including possible pesticide poisoning from the parents' work in the fields.

Between 1999 and 2003, state inspectors cited Ag-Mart three times for violating federal pesticide safety regulations.

Included were citations that involved introducing workers into fields recently treated by pesticides and failure to provide protective equipment to workers applying the pesticides.

During Friday's meeting, Martinez said, Long also mentioned trying to help the families straighten out their immigration status, although definitive steps were not outlined.

The two surviving children are U.S. citizens, but their parents are undocumented Mexican nationals.

Investigators from Collier's health department are conducting medical histories of the six parents, said department spokesperson Deb Millsap. The department is also using a long questionnaire developed by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control to investigate birth defects.

The department is also collaborating with the Florida Department of Agriculture to study the possible effect of chemicals used in the Immokalee fields where the parents worked, Millsap said.

A list posted for use on those fields enumerated 31 products containing chemical agents that are federally regulated. At least nine of the products contained active ingredients rated as "highly toxic."