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SPECIAL EDITION VI
Salmonella/Tomato Outbreak Info
From FDA Becomes More Bizarre

Habeas lycopersicum
Tomatoes Falsely ‘Imprisoned’

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 20, 2008

We’ve run a series of pieces detailing the struggle of Mexican tomato growers to get the same treatment Florida has… an “exemption” for those parts of the country that were not in production at the time of the outbreak.

With pieces, such as Free Baja, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban, FPAA Trying To Clear Baja, Baja Growers Denied Fair Access…Building Case For WTO plus FDA Leaves Mexico in the Dark, we’ve explored the impact of FDA’s policy in this matter.

Most recently, we ran a letter from Marco Jimenez, President of Divine Ripe, LLC in a piece we entitled, Mexican Tomato Grower Says Illinois Embargoed Its Product.

In the piece, Mr. Jimenez points out that his operations — and many others in Mexico — should be on the “not implicated” list based on the date of production onset. Also that Illinois has turned an FDA recommendation on its head and given it the force of law. But the recommendation has not gone through the vetting that a law or even a regulation would have to.

We wanted to know more about this operation. Marco Jimenez was traveling so Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott spoke with an associate:

Albert Cantu
sales
Divine Ripe
Hidalgo, Texas

Q: What production areas in Mexico are you involved in? Did you receive any relief when FDA cleared Baja California North?

A: Our production comes more from the center part of Mexico, northeast of Sinaloa, south of Del Rio, Texas; four or five hours directly south, and that’s where our growing areas are located.

We’re in the same situation as Baja California; we just started production in those areas, two growers began two-and-a-half weeks ago, the other one three-and-a-half weeks ago. Everything is hothouse, hydroponic products.

Q: Could you clarify what you mean by hothouse and hydroponics? Are the products all grown in greenhouses?

A. To us, we distinguish between a shade house, a greenhouse and a hothouse. The shade house can be a mesh-type screen where water, wind and heat still penetrate to some extent. A greenhouse, by our definition, is a combination of screens and plastic. Maybe the roof is plastic, water can penetrate, but walls are screens.

A hothouse is hard wall with hard plastic. Sometimes it’s shaded depending on how much sun you want coming in. Some roofs, like ours, can open for sunlight and then can close if you want controlled sunlight. This is a mechanical motorized system. Hothouse is completely hard plastic, where you control the temperature. It’s more of a high tech environment than a regular growing field. We only have hothouses; everything is hydroponically grown. .

Q: Is there a medium, such as chips, that the roots are grown in to support the life of the plant?

A: Our growers use individual soil bags. In case something goes wrong with one plant, they pull that one and don’t bother the rest of them.

Q: Where are you getting your water?

A: Our water source is deep well irrigation, 200 feet deep. This is not canal irrigation. The FDA did scare all the people. In every sense, we’ve been trying to figure out what to do since the outbreak.

FDA doesn’t have money invested in this like we do. It appears that they don’t care. This is very hard for these farmers. This is their livelihood. It’s like FDA doesn’t even know we exist. Those that are most aggressive get on the approved list. It appears to be political. If we don’t fight, we don’t get anything. We had no where to turn and hope that you can help us. This is why we wrote to Mr. Prevor.

Q: What has your experience been up to this point?

A: We were distributing tomatoes 10 days ago, four loads of tomatoes into Chicago. The Illinois Department of Health rejected the loads and kicked them out from the state and sent them back to us. They read on the FDA page that Mexico was not on the safe list. The loads left on June 7, the loads were rejected on June 9, and returned on June 13.

Q: What does that cost you?

A: You are looking at $100,000 in expense right there. We had to pay freight going to Chicago, and FDA released the publication not to eat Mexican tomatoes. Our receiver had orders canceled and couldn’t receive product, and no one to buy in Chicago.

We are distributing our tomatoes in Mexico, bringing in 5 to 8 loads at a time. We are still selling tomatoes because we know they have no problems. It’s very hard to convince people. We hired a private lab to analyze tomatoes for Salmonella. We’re in the process of getting our warehouse inspected for Salmonella as well to see if this will ease the discomfort from the public.

Q: What are the production schedules for your growing areas?

A: All of our tomato production started after the outbreak. Our production began the last part of May, first part of June, 30 days after the first onset of illness. We still have fields that we haven’t even started harvesting coming on the next week or so. We haven’t starting picking. They’re new crops. Everything is hot house, hydroponic, high-quality tomatoes.

Q: Have you relayed this information to the FDA or other U.S. government channels?

A: The FDA, along with a lot of other people, don’t understand. They concentrate on several major points: Jalisco, Sinaloa, and Baja. The public and FDA know those three places. We have hothouses in Chihuahua and Durango, and some in San Luis. These states also did not start production until after the onset of the outbreak time period.

Q What do you think is the reason FDA hasn’t put these areas on the approved list?

A: We have no idea why not. Maybe FDA doesn’t know about these areas. We thought if we write a letter to Mr. Prevor and he writes about us, maybe FDA will come to know about our areas.

There are not that many tomatoes grown out of that area. The biggest are us. We have the most ground cover. Unless we speak up, we’re the little mouse, and the giant is going to walk across and step on us. We hear “Baja” but no one cares about us. These are people who have been growers for a long time and we are fortunate to start working with them two or three years ago.

Q: Will you have any trouble fulfilling the certification requirements FDA has put in place for Baja California North?

A: It won’t be a problem with all these certificates. We just need to be treated in the same way.

This Pundit’s heart breaks at the lives ruined, fortunes lost, food destroyed and all, for what? What is FDA’s estimate of the chance that a tomato shipped tomorrow from the non-approved areas of Mexico will have Salmonella? And what is FDA’s estimate of the chances that a tomato shipped tomorrow from an approved area will have Salmonella?

The FDA won’t say, and the reason it won’t say is because it would be embarrassed. There would be no difference.

It would suddenly be clear, as we mentioned in this letter from Al Siger that the Emperor Has No Clothes. There is simply no basis for what the FDA is doing.

Read these plaintitive lines:

FDA doesn’t have money invested in this like we do. It appears that they don’t care. This is very hard for these farmers. This is their livelihood. It’s like FDA doesn’t even know we exist. Those that are most aggressive get on the approved list. It appears to be political. If we don’t fight, we don’t get anything. We had no where to turn and hope that you can help us. This is why we wrote to Mr. Prevor.

We don’t know if we can help. We have no authority, but we sure have a Bully Pulpit, and we are pleased to use it in such a righteous cause.

For this goes well beyond food safety. It simply stinks. The FDA exempts north Florida because it has two senators and 25 representatives who vote on FDA appropriations and who can call FDA officials to testify and make their lives miserable.

It releases northern Baja, but just as the attorneys we interviewed indicated, FDA often allows some small portion of a country’s production in so that the foreign government, in this case Mexico, can’t so easily bring a WTO complaint. But in the end, FDA exercises the kind of discretion incompatible with democracy and the rule of law.

This is bad because long after the tomatoes are flowing freely, people around the world will think of our democracy as Mr. Cantu does:

Those that are most aggressive get on the approved list. It appears to be political. If we don’t fight, we don’t get anything.

In writing the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1780, John Adams incorporated the phrase, “A government of laws, not of men” into the document and so enshrined a quintessential American concept — that our leaders are not kings and your treatment will not be determined by the favor the king may hold you in.

In adopting a rudderless standard, wholly dependent on the whims of FDA officials, completely requiring one to appear as a supplicant before the FDA begging for a dispensation, the leaders of this agency may cost us far more than a mishandled food safety outbreak. They put at risk our faith in our government to do right and the esteem the world might hold us in.

The loss is incalculable and all for nothing.

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