Fresh tomato sales warming, as is produce industry to FDA

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Published on 05/28/2009 09:11am By Don Schrack


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 dollars.

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 zero-tolerance approach.”

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., Oceanside, Calif.

“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.

As the $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.

“Traditionally, tomatoes 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.


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