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SPECIAL EDITION IV:Salmonella/Tomato CrisisCreates Collateral Damage

Pundit’s Mailbag —
Not Just Growers Affected

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 12, 2008

Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico was the title we gave to the kick-off piece of our coverage of the current crisis. This piece was quickly followed up with three special editions:

SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis

SPECIAL REPORT: As Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak Expands, Government Agencies Require More Scrutiny

SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Source List Narrows But Some Regions Ruined

This coverage, and specifically our pieces Free Baja and Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban, brought a letter from the President and Chief Operating Officer of a storied Midwestern wholesaler:

Channel 7 was here on the market the day before Florida was cleared. If Pundit readers click on this link, they can see how the story played on our local news in Chicago.

As a wholesaler/distributor we also have a lot of product from Mexico we can not sell. It is not only the growers, as you know, that are in deep trouble.

Many repackers, wholesalers and terminal markets across the country have lost all their business the past few days and have loads of inventory that they are not able to sell.

There are many folks in the supply chain that could really help the FDA when they are investigating these events in a way that could speed the answers.

We need to form a coalition of industry experts across product lines to be called on immediately to help out. A task force if you will for tomatoes and each product area.

The Pundit is doing a great job for the industry.

David Watson
President & COO
Strube Celery and Vegetable Co.
Chicago, Illinois

Yes, a standing task force or committee with the ability to tap into commodity-by-commodity expertise would be a very good resource for the industry to have at the ready.

Honestly, though, we are not convinced that it was a lack of knowledge that has led to the current situation with the FDA changing its website daily and thus causing more confusion as it added regions to its “not implicated” zones.

Even without standing committees, we are pretty convinced an e-mail from FDA to United, PMA, WGA, etc., requesting a list of all tomato areas in production or shipping to a region or the US during a certain period of time, would have been met with a quick response.

The problem is that FDA didn’t ask.

FDA seems to have genuinely wanted to minimize the impact of its advisories, mindful of the destruction it caused during the spinach crisis. So it came upon this idea to minimize damage by creating a list of regions “not implicated,” but it never asked the industry for a comprehensive list. Otherwise FDA wouldn’t have added, for example, New Jersey to the "not implicated list" as we were writing this article.

The other problem is that the FDA doesn’t want to point fingers and implicate innocent parties. This sounds like a good idea but de facto means everyone is implicated until declared “not implicated” and this causes much confusion.

If you watch David Watson in the newsreel you will note he speaks English instead of FDA-ese, translating the long list of “not implicated” states and countries into a simple caution about Florida, at least before the FDA move, and Mexico.

We, of course, hope that a solution comes that allows Strube and all others, in Mexico and the US, to sell their Mexican tomatoes. Partly because we hate to see innocent businesspeople crushed by circumstances beyond their control but, also, because it is certainly a shame and quite possibly a sin to waste so much food when there is poverty and hunger in the world.

As for David Watson and Strube, we appreciate the letter and, Dave, if this produce thing doesn’t work out, you have a bright future in newscasts.

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