Tomato Growers Seeing Red
Tuesday, August 5, 2008; Page D01
Source of Article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/04/AR2008080402119.html
While throwing a
few rotten tomatoes at
After weeks of
implicating domestic tomatoes in an outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul, federal food-safety sleuths shifted the
spotlight to jalapeņo and serrano peppers grown in
But before the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted the tomato advisory July 17,
Growers said they lost $100 million in sales during the investigation, which they charge was conducted poorly and without enough consultation with them.
The growers knew
the agency hadn't gotten to the source of the problem after the FDA told people
to stop eating tomatoes and the illnesses increased, said Robert Guenther,
senior vice president for public policy for United Fresh Produce Association,
an industry group in
Things got even more problematic for investigators when tests didn't turn up a single domestic tomato with the bacteria.
The late reprieve for the industry shows how difficult it is to conduct international investigations of food-borne illnesses with limited resources and imperfect ways to trace a product back to its source.
At the same time, pressure has intensified to solve cases quickly and to pay for "mistakes" made.
Holding a tomato in one hand and a jalapeņo in the other, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee, pressed the FDA on whether the tomato was still a "vegetable of interest" or had been cleared.
David W.K. Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for food, responded at a July 31 hearing that no mistakes had been made and that tomatoes on the market were safe to eat.
The FDA said it followed the leads provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found in early interviews with sick people that, overwhelmingly, they had eaten raw tomatoes in salsa or Mexican-style restaurant food.
saintpaul case began in May when federal and
state investigators identified cases of the infection, which can cause serious
illness and death, in
As the weeks passed, tomato growers became increasingly critical of the investigation.
It's not feasible for growers to legally challenge the government for their losses -- and the investigation isn't yet over -- but they hope Congress will help.
Rep. Tim Mahoney
(D-Fla.) is sympathetic to the $1.3 billion tomato
industry, as are other members of the state's delegation. He introduced a bill
July 24 that would compensate growers and packers for losses up to $100
"There should be some compensation," Mahoney said. "They have done nothing. They shouldn't be held accountable. You have indicted an entire industry and left doubt that it's okay to eat tomatoes.''
Bill Marler, a food-safety plaintiff attorney with Marler Clark in
"Everyone empathizes," Marler said of the industry's losses. He cautioned that imperfect information may have implicated tomatoes, but "we would ask for their heads on a platter if it was tomatoes.''
There are other policy questions about penalizing agencies for their conclusions in the course of an investigation.
have public health people fearing liability," said Michael Taylor, a
research professor at
who was a top food-safety official in the
''The government should mandate a set time period to provide answers to questions of where the produce came from," he said.
Tomato growers think they have a case for compensation from Congress since they don't qualify for other aid programs.
For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs crop-insurance programs that cover disasters from floods and hurricanes, but not crops ensnared in recalls.
Some companies have recall insurance, but they're not likely to collect unless there is a recall -- not a warning or an advisory.
This isn't the first time produce growers looked to Congress for help with a food-safety issue.
Even though the 2006 bagged spinach recall involving Dole Food and Natural Selection Foods was more contained, growers took a $100 million hit, according to the United Fresh Produce Association.
Spinach growers got a financial-aid provision part way through Congress but didn't succeed.
In March 1989,
"We got no
compensation," said Richard Eastes, a
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