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SPECIAL EDITION IV:
Salmonella/Tomato Crisis
Creates Collateral Damage

Following FDA’s Demand For Certificates, Florida Sends Strong Force Of Inspectors

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 12, 2008

Following the decision by the FDA to add 19 Florida counties to the “safe” list, we started receiving numerous comments from wholesalers, repackers and distributors around the country that they were not able to get the certificates required under the FDA’s new rule. Many were desperately trying to get certificates to cover tomatoes that have been sitting in their warehouse.

One wholesaler put it this way:

There’s a tremendous backup. My understanding is that each certificate has to be hand-written after the research has been done to verify that the load in question falls within the permitted parameters.

When you figure the thousands of loads shipped over the past few weeks from three major growing areas, my guess is that it could take days to have them all completed.

We wanted to find out what the real situation is. So we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

— Charles Beasley
Bureau Chief
Division of Fruits and Vegetables
Florida Department of Agriculture and
Consumer Services
Winter Haven, Florida

Q: I understand you are overseeing the huge task of certifying thousands of loads of Florida tomatoes from counties that have now become part of FDA’s approved list of sources. How are you handling the challenge?

A: I have a full force of inspectors in the field. We are meeting all requests as far as I know. We issue a certificate based on audited paperwork. The certificate shows what county the product is grown in, date harvested, and any identifying marks to show that it meets FDA’s requirements. We verify the paper work. They have to prove statements are factual and then we issue a handwritten certificate.

Q: We’ve heard some concern in the industry that the vast amount of product shipped over the past few weeks from the three major growing areas could create a major backlog based on the tedious process of verifying loads within the permitted parameters to sell in the marketplace.

A: This all came about in a couple of days. As far as I know right now, I have quite a bit of staff working on this with enough manpower to generate quick turnover. I personally haven’t gotten any complaints and I’d be first in line to hear them. If you know of anyone who is having difficulty getting certified, please have them contact me. I’m not saying someone won’t have to wait a little while; we have to finish the job to go to the next job but we’re working as accurately and fast as possible.

Q: A person on your staff mentioned that your office has gotten an influx of phone calls since this process began. Are these more procedural in nature?

A: I’ve gotten many questions on protocol. A lot of calls I’m getting are from distributors who already have tomatoes up north that have left the state of Florida. They are asking how to obtain the certificate so they can get the product to their stores or restaurants. I tell them they have to call the shipper and have the shipper contact my office, and then we go out and do the inspection. That is the main question.

Before we fill out that certificate, they have to have the proper paperwork to prove these are Florida tomatoes from the approved counties. Usually this process goes smoothly because they are already pre-notified on what they need to present before we get there.

The biggest calls I’m getting are from receivers with product on the way or in warehouses wondering how to get product released for sale. I’m here to help if anyone is facing a problem. Please have them call me. [Phone: 863-528-1972]. The initial scare hurt the market bad. I’m not sure many growers will recover from the damage caused by the initial panic, but this latest move by FDA will soften the blow.

Our regional administrator is in the field right now and could give you a better understanding of the dynamic on the ground.

Mira was able to get through to Barry Gaffney right away:

— Barry Gaffney
Fruit and Vegetable Regional Administrator

Q: Charles Beasley says you’ve been working hard in the trenches to help the Florida tomato industry revive business.

A: We’re working around the clock doing certificates for every load. We’re getting it done because we want these tomatoes out in the stores for people to eat. We’ve completed close to a million containers already!

These people are dedicated and we appreciate that they are doing such a great job on short notice. They all hit the road running, everyone we could scrounge up, from Homestead, to Immokolee, to Palm Meadow and around Tampa, about 30 people working until 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. for two days straight. They sleep two or three hours, and are working until they get it done, producing thousands and thousands of these certificates.

If the company has the information on the computer, the inspector is working off the computer, if not they have printouts they’re filling out. Any concerns of a major backlog are unwarranted.

We’re trying to help the growers. This should have never happened. We’re giving out the certificates as fast as we can. Close to a million boxes have been verified and written up on the forms and handed to people that own fruit so it can be released.

Q: How are you holding up through this process?

A: I went home to grab a suitcase and haven’t been back home since, going county to county, with a book listing packinghouses, checking up with supervisors in the different counties, making sure they are doing what they’re told, and every place has been happy. I’ll pick up the phone on the road and check in with these places. Everyone has told me positive things, how well the supervisors are doing.

We’re trying to do our best to get this done. I’m giving reports every six hours to my director on how many people are working, how many certificates completed, how many places inspected.

I’ve been around this great industry 32 years. I’m for the growers, and don’t want to see them lose any more money.

We were very impressed with the attitude and diligence of both Charles Beasley and Barry Gaffney. This isn’t an easy task and they are dedicated to accomplishing it in record time.

That Charles Beasley offered industry members his phone number — 863-528-1972 — and urged industry members to call him if they have a problem is a very good sign.

It seems like a lot is being accomplished very quickly. In fact it is not clear all the shippers are keeping up with the inspectors in terms of getting certificates out to their customers, but Charles and Barry and their team and the whole State of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services deserve a real commendation.

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