Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008

Tomato industry recovering from salmonella scare


MANATEE — On the rebound from a salmonella scare last spring, local tomato growers have a fresh crop going to market. But some are more optimistic than others about this tomato season.

Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato said the increased supply since the spring has dropped prices for consumers, encouraging them to buy tomatoes.

Consumer confidence was crippled by the salmonella scare initially blamed on tomatoes. The Food and Drug Administration later discovered salmonella in peppers from Mexico, but only after the Florida tomato industry lost millions of dollars.

Workers at West Coast Tomato packing plant in Palmetto sort through Roma tomatoes as they go through the packaging process.--photo by Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/

 “We’re hoping we’re completely over the scare we went through this spring,” Spencer said. “It’s nowhere near the problem we were facing.”

The supply will increase more when Mexican-grown tomatoes boost the volume until March, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

“It creates price depression when we have volume. This is really the only significant volume we’ve had since May or June as an industry,” he said.

But even though lower prices may encourage consumers to buy more, the tomato industry faces other concerns.

When the salmonella scare happened, retail stores shifted from buying field-grown tomatoes to produce grown in greenhouses. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange is working on a promotional program to encourage retailers to buy more field-grown tomatoes. “Our retail effort has been an attempt to get back into the retail establishments and expand or at least hold on to the shelf space for field-grown product,” Brown said.

Two of the biggest issues facing the tomato industry are food safety and new regulations mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Gary Reeder, a Duette tomato grower.

The tomato industry worked hard to have food safety standards in place before the salmonella outbreak, which was a costly, yet important investment for the industry.

Now, the environmental agency has put restrictions on soil fumigants used to fight pests, disease and soil borne pathogens. Growers are required to have a buffer zone between fumigated fields and homes and schools, causing Reeder to lose production from acreage near Dry Prairie Baptist Church and Duette Elementary.

Reeder said he doesn’t believe the overall supply is completely back and neither is the demand because of the economy.

“There’s not as high of demand that I’d like to see,” he said. “The economy is still not very good at all, and there’s a lot of people not putting money out for fresh produce.”

Ed Angrisani, a partner at Taylor & Fulton, said he also believes the supply is down, probably 20 percent to 25 percent from what it was before the salmonella outbreak.

“In the state of Florida right now, our supply is slightly less than last year. We just don’t have the demand we had before, and I don’t think we’ll get that back,” he said.

Angrisani blames the economy for low prices and low demand. The demand at grocery stores is lower because people are cooking at home, he said. One customer who buys Roma tomatoes from Taylor & Fulton typically buys 50 loads from several farms, but last week he only needed 18 loads, he said.

Prices on tomatoes are continuing to decline. About three weeks ago, a box of tomatoes was going for $18 but has since dropped between $6 and $8, he said. “They’re still falling. We can’t find the bottom of the market,” he said.

If things continue on the downward spiral, Angrisani predicts that 50 percent of Florida’s tomato growers will be out of business in just a few years. Because of the way the cost of production is soaring, growers will not have the financial wherewithal to stay in farming without credit, and banks are hesitant to lend money. It cost an estimated $10 million to raise 1,000 acres of tomatoes, he said.



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