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Birth defect probe widens

Oct 13, 2005 | A Plant City agriculture company under investigation after a number of birth defects among its workers' babies is facing fines of more than $111,000 and accusations of violating federal and state pesticide laws.

Ag-Mart Produce Inc. and four of its employees are accused of 88 counts of pesticide use violation at two different farms in Immokalee and Jennings, according to an announcement Wednesday by the office of Charles Bronson, Florida's commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.

The most serious counts involve "preharvest intervals" and "restricted entry intervals," when Ag-Mart allegedly harvested crops anywhere from one day to five days after pesticide applications despite a seven-day waiting period indicated on the label, according to the department.

However, no illegal pesticide residues were identified on food crops in routine sampling from the farms and the violations have not been linked to the birth defects, the department said.

An Ag-Mart representative could not be reached for comment.

Bronson's office launched an investigation into Ag-mart in March with the Collier County Health Department and the Florida Department of Health into the cause of three cases of birth defects in children born to mothers who worked for Ag-Mart.

One of the babies has a cleft palate and facial abnormalities. One child was born so disfigured her sex couldn't be determined until her body was autopsied, according to published reports.

Despite the office finding numerous cases of pesticide violations, it never connected any illnesses to them.

Still, Ag-Mart announced it would stop using five pesticides linked to adverse health effects.

The four employees named with the company in the violations are Warrick Birdwell, Charles Lambert, Justin Oelmann and Josh Cantu, the department said.

Bronson is seeking $111,200 in fines against Ag-Mart, which has 21 days to request a hearing if it decides to contest the findings, the department said.

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