Unpleasant Food Safety Story
1959 saw one of the wettest Septembers ever in Fresno, California. Usually Fresno has no rain in September. But that year they had .92 inches.
One of the big crops in the region back then was raisins. The grapes ripen in the hot summers, and growers rely on the sun to dry the raisins, laid out on trays between the rows of vines. The harvest date for raisins varies with the season, but the grapes are usually picked during the last of August or the first week of September, and are out in the field until the 12th or so. But in 1959 the rains came when the grapes were on the trays, not yet raisins. This is a formula for instant mold, and, depending on field conditions and how much water fell on particular trays, some parts of raisin vineyards produced severely moldy raisins. I remember seeing the blue coloration of the worst spots.
In 1959 I was working at one raisin processing operation on a farm near Fresno. Some workers took the raisins off of the trailers used to bring them out of the field (I can not remember if that farm had made the shift from wooden to paper trays that year—it was around that time everyone shifted). The next set of workers dumped the raisins onto the top tier of the shaker, used to separate and discard the stems. I was working at the lower tier of the shaker, swirling my hands around the raisins, grabbing the stems and tossing them to the side. The shaker disgorged the raisins into a box waiting at the end. At that time that farm used large wooden boxes, about two by three feet, and about 9 inches tall, painted green on the ends a long time ago, to pack the raisins for transport to the place where they were boxed and bagged. One man would put an empty box at the base of the shaker, but it took two to move it out of the way, and a hoist to lift it onto a pallet where they were stacked, to wait for a truck to take them away. The stacks were taller than a man.
The man who owned the farm worked on the processing line with everyone else, and did a curious thing. He had the workers on the trailer segregate the visibly moldy raisins, and when there was a large enough pile, run them through the shaker all at once. He would only have us fill the boxes about half way, and then replace it with another empty box. When the moldy raisins were in boxes, he had us run clean raisins through the line, topping off the half-filled boxes. I donŐt remember how many boxes were packed that way, but there were many of them.
This still troubles me. I woke up last night dreaming about it, again. This is food. And I took part in the subterfuge. I have no idea what became of the moldy raisins at the next step, or whether any of those moldy raisins got into the little boxes of raisins they used to serve kids at school lunches in those days.
I should have called a time-out, and said just that. This is food. But I didnŐt.
I do know the man who owned the farm did it for money. He was a Republican, a Nixon and Goldwater Republican who, for a time, was on the county party committee. He believed the state should not regulate things like pesticides on farms. Taxes should be lower. Smaller government is better. I never talked with him about the apparent contradiction between the episode of the moldy raisins and his political positions. Looking back, it seems like more regulation is better. Someone has to be checking to see that the very real financial incentives do not produce mold in our food.