Farm groups urge changes to federal food-safety programs

Issue Date: August 13, 2008

By Ching Lee
Assistant Editor

Source of Article:


San Joaquin County farmer Richard Rodriguez says sales for his jalapeņo peppers has been flat since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fingered the hot peppers as a possible culprit in a nationwide salmonella outbreak that has baffled investigators for months.

Although the ongoing FDA investigation has recently narrowed its focus on serrano and jalapeņo peppers from Mexico, California growers such as Rodriguez worry that consumers may remain skittish about all hot peppers, as they have about an earlier product that was implicated.

In a field next to his jalapeņos sit Roma tomatoes that he cannot move. They are an indication that the initial FDA advisory on tomatoes carries a serious financial sting. Since the agency first warned consumers on June 7 against eating certain types of red raw tomatoes, including red Roma, red plum and red round, business has been dire for U.S. tomato farmers and packers.

"The demand is still not there," Rodriguez said. "A lot of these tomatoes are just not moving, and it's brought the market down. It's going to be four or five years before we get a recovery on tomatoes."

Unable to sell their product, many growers disked their fields, and packers were left with inventory they could not move. Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers cooperative, said tomato sales to Canada remain off by 35 percent, while West Coast sales were down nearly 40 percent in June.

"We're still seeing a weakness in demand," he said. "It's coming back in food service, but at retail, it is still on the slow side."

Beckman testified late last month in one of two separate congressional hearings to review issues related to the traceability of fresh produce and the damages FDA actions have caused the nation's fresh tomato sector. Saying "the system is broken," Beckman questioned the FDA approach to the outbreak.

"There's going to have to be some changes," he said. "But we can't even suggest what that is until FDA opens up and tells us what happened."

In a statement submitted to the House agriculture subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture, the California Farm Bureau Federation urged lawmakers to develop a system that would clearly define the targets of recalls while narrowing unneeded recall actions and the resulting financial losses.

The Farm Bureau said more funding and staffing are needed to research and diagnose food-borne illnesses. Better reporting and communication is also needed between food safety agencies and food handlers to trace illnesses, the statement said.

Other Farm Bureau recommendations include reviewing FDA procedures to guarantee that products subject to recall and consumer alerts did cause the illness before public announcements are made; congressional consideration of Commodity Credit Corporation actions or other risk-management tools to compensate producers for losses through no fault of their own; improved traceability of product distribution; and enhanced food safety testing and surveillance in countries exporting food to the United States.

The organization also pushed for public education programs for consumers to lessen the likelihood of food-borne illnesses.

"A level playing field is needed where everyone is dedicated to food safety," said Jack King, CFBF manager of national affairs. "We know that contamination can occur at any point and continues once received at the retail, food service and consumer levels. Trace-back alone will not be the end-all in food safety."

Beckman of the tomato farmers' cooperative told the oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that a nationwide, mandatory food safety regulation in tomatoes is needed. He recommended that such a program be modeled after ones that have been implemented in California and Florida.

Along with Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, Beckman told the House panel that the two states have established food safety guidelines for farmers and handlers and stringent field verification audits by state ag inspectors. Packing facilities are subject to random and unannounced government inspections, which include verifying their ability to conduct trace-backs on their products.

"This would not only promote food safety to protect public health but also level the playing field among all tomato producers so that we are all working under the same regulatory framework," Beckman said.

The California Tomato Farmers cooperative, which represents about 80 percent of the fresh market tomatoes produced in California, adopted its inspection program last year. Florida's food safety regulations became effective in July.

FDA has cleared tomatoes since July 17 as safe to eat, but that will not undo the losses farmers and packers have already incurred, which are estimated at $100 million to $250 million.

They are now seeking compensation for those losses. Several lawmakers have introduced legislation to allow U.S. tomato producers to get some of their money back, but the multimillion-dollar compensation package faces an uphill battle, said Beckman.

"That thing is a long shot. It's slim to next to nothing," he said.

Meanwhile, FDA officials are still working to trace back the source of the salmonella outbreak, which began in April and has led to more than 1,300 reported illnesses in 42 states and the District of Columbia. While they've turned their suspicions to Mexican serrano and jalapeņo peppers, they have not completely exonerated tomatoes, saying the summertime staple could have been responsible for some of the earlier illnesses. But they have cleared U.S.-grown chili peppers as a source of contamination.

Investigators received their first break in the case on July 21 after they found the same strain of Salmonella Saintpaul linked to the outbreak on a Mexican-grown jalapeņo pepper in a produce distribution center owned by Agricola Zaragoza in McAllen, Texas, near the Mexican border. The tainted pepper was traced to a farm in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The following week, the same strain of salmonella was found on a serrano pepper and in irrigation water collected from a farm in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. The farm grows serrano and jalapeņo peppers. The Tamaulipas farm also grew tomatoes. Produce from both farms went through the same distribution centers, leading investigators to believe that cross contamination could have occurred.

Serrano and jalapeņo pepper production in California is small compared to tomatoes. In 2006, total state acreage of all varieties of chili peppers amounted to only 5,500, while fresh market tomato acreage was more than 41,000, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

With a limited market for the specialty peppers, growers such as Rodriguez fear that any dip in demand will negatively impact his growing season and bottom line.

"If you're taking them off the shelves, the larger packing operations will find different ways of selling them, so then they'll get into some of the venues that I deal with--whether it's the restaurant industry or farmers' markets or some of the open-air markets," he said.

Despite a downturn in the market because of food safety concerns, growers must continuously harvest their ripened jalapeņo peppers in order for their plants to continue producing a crop for several more weeks.


Pepper plants will stop producing if the ripened crop is not harvested, he noted. Therefore, working within such a small window doesn't allow for much flexibility when markets are sluggish and product movement is slow.

"So to keep the field viable, you have to keep picking," Rodriguez said. "If you lose a couple of weeks because nobody wants to buy them, you either have to come out here and pay the labor to take them off and throw them in the ditch or the plants mature and that's it--no more production."


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