A year ago, the
Salmonella Saintpaul debacle began to take shape. By June 2008, the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration warned the public not to eat most types of red
tomatoes or anything that contained them.
Months later, the FDA
would reveal tomatoes were not to blame for the illnesses. It was little
consolation for an industry whose losses climbed into tens of millions of
The hostility some
California tomato grower-shippers expressed for the federal agency last
year is paying dividends.
“The FDA has been very
responsive since last July,” said Ed Beckman, president of California
Tomato Farmers, a Fresno-based cooperative. “In particular, the FDA staff
has backed our efforts to implement a rapid-fire traceability system.”
Since its formation two
years ago, the cooperative has gone to great lengths to establish strict
food safety standards for its member grower-shippers, Beckman said. Those
standards include unannounced U.S. Department of Agriculture audits.
“Our member-growers must
get perfect scores,” Beckman said. “A 98% doesn’t do it. It’s a
The Salmonella Saintpaul
episode brought home a good dose of reality for the growers, said Bill
Wilber, president and director of marketing for Oceanside Produce Inc.,
“Because of all the
things we do from a food safety aspect, it was a real eye-opener that other
people can cause us problems,” he said.
The episode also revealed
how some laws designed to protect the American public can hinder getting to
the bottom of pathogen-caused outbreaks.
“Because of bioterrorism
regulations, the FDA was actually barred from going directly to restaurants
or stores that may have been linked to the outbreak,” Wilber said.
In the wake of saintpaul,
the cooperative conducted its own post-mortem investigation, Beckman said.
It turned out California’s fresh tomato industry could have been a huge
help to the FDA.
“We had the data,”
Beckman said. “The FDA just didn’t know what to ask for.”
The cooperative and the
FDA have agreed on risk-identification standards based on the traceability
record-keeping California growers have been doing as standard operating
procedure, he said.
In addition, the two
sides have developed what Beckman said are true tomato metrics that provide
for common audit standards.
Those standards are in
place today, he said. The need for the tomato industry standards multiplies
because the fruit is widely used.
“We get the black eye
because tomatoes are in so many different things, such as in salads, cut up
for sandwiches and in salsas,” Wilber said. “The probability goes up, and
right away the finger gets pointed.”
Technology may help avoid
false accusations in the future. Science has improved so that we find paths
much more quickly than we did in the past, Wilber said.
$400-million-a-year industry tries to put 2008 behind it, grower-shippers
must now face the reality of a global recession. It is a reality that just
may have a silver lining.
grow in consumption during recessions,” Beckman said.
The upward trend is
already evident, he said. As the public elects to forego sit-down
restaurants in favor of less expensive fare, fresh tomato sales to the
fast-food industry are up 10% already this year, Beckman said.