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

Florida Tomatoes Coming Back To Life

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 17, 2008

We ran a piece here with Mark Munger, Vice President of Marketing for Andrew & Williamson, San Diego, California, and here with Allison Moore, Communications Director for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Arizona, but one can’t fully appreciate the extent of this crisis with out realizing its impact in Florida. The other day, we reported that FDA had lifted the ban on Florida tomatoes from 19 counties. Then we discussed the job the inspectors were doing getting the needed certificates done.

We asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to find out more about how things stand in Florida:

Reggie Brown
Manager, Florida Tomato Committee
Executive Vice President,
Florida Tomato Exchange &
Florida Tomato Growers Exchange
Maitland, Florida

Q: How are things progressing since FDA put Florida counties on the approved source list?

A: The state indicated four million cartons were certified in the course of the week; over a thousand loads. We have everything in the channels of trade with certificates. We’ve sent communications to our customer base to inform staff tomatoes are on the safe list, and from where they’re produced, to allay fears and let consumers know they can eat tomatoes.

We are seeing some movement. Sales are more sluggish than what we expected at this time, given there is no outbreak, but life is finally returning to the tomato business.

We are working with FDA to resolve this as quickly as possible. We appreciate FDA’s efforts to work with the industry to do as little harm as possible.

Q: Do you support Mexico’s position that FDA should exempt all the regions that were not in production during the time of the outbreak, in the same way it did for Florida?

A: I am not totally familiar with what Mexico’s attempts are. I don’t have any knowledge of that. I do think it is important from a philosophical standpoint, that when there are producers and production systems obviously outside the potential contamination and suspect category, every effort should be made to allow those folks access to enter channels of distribution and be able to sell their product in the marketplace.

Q: What kinds of losses have Florida tomato growers experienced due to FDA actions related to the outbreak?

A: How much damage is a hard number to get a handle on. Half a billion dollars is the potential number for the tomato market nationally. It might not be nearly that large, or it could reach that number. We’ll have a better sense of the impact in a month or two, but more so in six months to a year from now.

I place a high value on consumer confidence on consumption of tomatoes. We don’t know the long-term repercussions on consumer comfort levels that tomatoes are safe to eat. If consumers lost trust in us, this could seriously damage the industry.

In Florida, we have well over $40 million worth of product and have started moving most of that product. Whether the value has fallen in half or not, I don’t know. We’re just trying to get product certified and out in the marketplace.

Q: What efforts took place behind the scenes to get those Florida counties on the approved source list?

A: It took a lot of work by the Florida Department of Agriculture. The Florida tomato industry has been working with FDA for several years, and it paid dividends to help Florida growers survive.

Under state law, our mandatory food safety program becomes official the first day of July. Implementation of this progressive, state-run program will be taking place in the fall. This is the first one in the country but it won’t be the last. We need to raise the bar on food safety in the produce industry.

The other day, we ran a piece prompted by a food safety expert asking if we thought that the whole situation might not be best explained as a result of FDA’s lack of confidence in the food safety efforts of the produce trade and, specifically, the tomato industry.

And we note with interest that both in the State press release, announcing that FDA had allowed access to market for 19 Florida counties, and in Reggie’s comments here, credit is given to Florida’s tomato food safety program.

We suppose if FDA had special concerns or had felt extra resistance over the years from Florida, its case would not have been so strong. BUT, just looking at the list, it is hard to believe that evaluation of food safety programs played any role at all. Clearly the FDA didn’t have time to do some thorough evaluation of food safety programs on a whirlwind tour of Hawaii, Israel, New Jersey, etc.

And, in fact, many of the places on the list have no particular tomato food safety luster at all.

The only tie we can find: Areas that were not producing — or shipping to the effected region — at the time of the outbreak.

We thank Reggie Brown and the Florida Tomato Committee for sharing the state of things with the broader industry. And we extend heartfelt wishes that the Florida tomato growers and broader Florida tomato community should not be too badly hurt by this outbreak and its aftermath.

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