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SPECIAL EDITION V:Salmonella/Tomato Crisis Continues For Most Of Mexico

Mexican Tomato Grower Says
Illinois Embargoed Its Product

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 17, 2008

Our pieces Free Baja, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban and Baja Growers Denied Fair access…Building Case For WTO, along with the accompanying interview FPAA Trying to Clear Baja, helped to illuminate the injustice being visited on the growers of Baja California. Although central and southern Baja still remain unfairly restricted, at least the FDA has now added northern Baja production to the “not implicated” list.

We’ve heard from others who also were not in production at the time of the outbreak and, as innocent parties, are pleading for mercy… and justice, from the FDA:

Mr. Prevor, we are a Mexican distributing company of perishables but tomatoes make up the majority of our product. The majority of our production comes from three Mexican states, which are Chihuahua, Durango and San Luis Potosi.

We work hand by hand with three Mexican growers. We have seen all the time and money they invest to produce and package their product. They have invested in hothouses, drip irrigation; they all use deep well water for their crops, high quality seeds and fertilizers. This work and expenditure was all to ensure quality and safety in all their produce. The growers of Chihuahua and Durango had started their production just two weeks ago and San Luis Potosi about three weeks ago.

For the past few months, we had the honor to read your publications. The article posted on the phone conversation with Mr. Mark Munger of Andrew and Williamson touch us deeply the same way in regards to all this controversy on the Mexican tomatoes. Divine Ripe truly understands his point of view when such crisis is affecting the distributors and farmers on such an abrupt decision from the FDA.

We believe that the FDA made decisions without investigating the real source of the tomato outbreak. The reports and news articles we have been able to study indicate that the FDA did not act in time to prevent illness and did not move fast enough to locate the source of the problem. It is possible it will never be found at any particular point.

This being so, we are saying please do not disregard all of Mexico except the northern part of Baja. Mexico, like the United States, also follows a growing cycle throughout the tomato growing states. The FDA has made a needlessly harsh decision to, in effect, ban all Mexican production except that of north Baja from the USA. We are not even certain this is a grower problem. After all, the process from farm to market is complex; tomatoes are handled by many different factors before reaching the public.

We all know from the news articles the salmonella outbreak began around April 16. It has been now 8 weeks and we were NOT in production just like BAJA, again as northern BAJA was and central and southern Baja still is, we are being banned by the FDA.

The FDA should investigate MEXICO just as they did FLORIDA and point out the Mexican states that were in production at the time of the outbreak. That way, they can lift the ban and notify the public of which states in Mexico are cleared.

Since the outbreak of salmonella and the alerts reported by the FDA to the public, it has been hard for us and all Mexican tomato shippers to make sales and deliveries. A week ago Friday, we shipped four loads of tomatoes to Chicago, IL. By a week ago Monday, the FDA had sent so many alerts that our receivers refused to accept the loads. We made several calls to place the loads elsewhere, but we were informed the FDA had a ban on Mexican tomato.

It took until Wednesday of last week for us to get a call from the Illinois Department of Health informing us that they were going to embargo the loads of tomato due to the origin of country where they were produced. We spoke to Charles, who said he was from the Department of Health, and was going to seal and tape the tractor trailers and were sending them back to our facility in Texas. The FDA in Illinois called the FDA in Texas to let them know the tomatoes would arrive at our location on Friday of this week and for them to assure themselves that the entire product made it back to us.

We feel the State of Illinois did not investigate enough to take that action against us; the answers provided by their field officer were simply inconclusive. Before the end of the day on Wednesday, they all had gone home without providing any answers or paperwork on what they had based their decision. The field officer simply instructed us to log on to the FDA web page, and there we could read that Mexico was NOT excluded from the testing and the tomatoes were not allowed in their state.

Once again, we at Divine Ripe thank you for all your support for the Mexican growers. We know you have put a lot of your time and effort in to let us know the news as all this develops into something major.

— Marco Jimenez
President
Divine Ripe, LLC

We really appreciate Marco’s letter. First, because it gives us a chance to state the obvious: The FDA is ruining companies for no reason through the scattered process of putting regions and states on the “not suspect” list.

The industry could give FDA a good list of areas that were not in production at the time of the outbreak in a few minutes. Why the need for this melodrama of every day adding places to this list? Just the other day, we received word — Hallelujah — that Connecticut tomatoes were not implicated!

This is just no way to do business!

Second, because we think the Illinois Department of Public Health is wrong and we hope some smart Illinois attorney will take this case.

The FDA did not order a mandatory recall. They did not ban the sale or consumption of Mexican tomatoes of any kind. They did not issue a finding that they are suspected of being adulterated.

FDA simply issued a recommendation:

“At this time, FDA recommends consuming raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw red round tomatoes only if grown and harvested from the following areas…”

“FDA recommends that retailers, restaurateurs, and food service operators offer only fresh and fresh cut red Roma, red plum, and round red tomatoes and food products made from these tomatoes for sale or service from the sources listed above.

FDA further recommends that retailers, restaurateurs, and food service operators continue to offer cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, from any source.”

You can see the “Notice of Detention or Embargo” Illinois issued here, here, here and here, and what Illinois did is based on an FDA RECOMMENDATION. Illinois instituted its own ban. Not only that, it did so without public notice and so caused people to incur fortunes in trucking and other expenses.

It is perfectly legal to buy, sell and consume tomatoes not on the “not implicated” list. Illinois has decided that anything “Not Implicated” is “Implicated” but that is not true, and FDA would be the first to deny it.

Suppose we felt like importing some nice French tomatoes — there were none in America at the time of this outbreak — the fact that it is not on the “not implicated” list just means that nobody has asked or the process isn’t complete. It certainly doesn’t mean they are implicated.

FDA’s standard for lifting an Import Alert or a recommendation has little to do with ensuring the product is not adulterated. The Honduras cantaloupe grower has done hundreds of tests that have all come out negative, but FDA isn’t lifting the Import Alert because its criteria to do so involve things such as making sure it will not happen again. This has nothing to do with whether the present product is adulterated.

Besides, with 277 known sick and the CDC estimating 38 people sick but not hospitalized for each one we know about, we are talking about 10,526 servings of tomato with the salmonella. During the 55 days the CDC is now telling us this outbreak was active, America consumed approximately 4,616,190,555 servings of tomato. Which means that during the midst of the outbreak, the odds any particular tomato serving would have Salmonella Saintpaul in a dose necessary to get anyone sick was 10,526 divided by 4,616,190,555 or .000002%. Such low incidence would hardly justify a finding that these particular tomatoes were “suspected of being adulterated.”

We have a lot of attorneys who read the Pundit. We hope one in Illinois will step up and help these folks. We would gladly provide expert witness testimony as to the absurdity of this claim.

This is still America. Laws have meaning, words have meaning and a recommendation is exactly that. Illinois had no business getting involved.

Many thanks to Marco for sharing this experience. We sincerely hope you get a recovery and that the FDA will move to extend to other “not implicated” regions in Mexico that official status.

Getting that status should not depend on being a large district; FDA should do it because it is right.

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