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Food safety remains top concern for tomato growers

by C. Baxter Carter | September 09, 2009
NAPLES, FL -- Despite the lack of a single tomato-related food-safety incident in the past year, that topic was at the forefront during the first two days of meetings at the 34th annual Florida Joint Tomato Conference held Sept. 8-14 at the Ritz-Carlton, here. The conference was hosted by the Florida Tomato Committee and the Florida Tomato Exchange.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, opened the Sept. 9 session by addressing growers and shippers, who saw revenues drop by half in the 2008-09 season, which ended in June, despite shipping 2 million more 25-pound boxes of tomatoes than in the previous season.

Mr. Brown said that Florida growers shipped 47 million boxes of tomatoes this year, up from 45 million the year before, but the value of the crop fell to $382 million from $616 million the previous year. Prices this year averaged $8.13 a box compared to $13.71 in 2007-08. For five weeks this year, Florida tomatoes sold for as little as $5 a box.

"We had adequate supplies despite the weather events we had, we were in a year following a Salmonella situation, we had the highest input costs we have ever seen and we're in the middle of a terrible recession," Mr. Brown said. "Last year was just one for the record books - one we hopefully won't experience again."

Despite economic woes, Mr. Brown stressed that the industry must maintain its focus on food safety.

"As an industry, you all have done a very good job meeting the standard that's out there," Mr. Brown told the crowd comprised largely of growers and shippers. "It's not a viable position to lose that trust."

The conference gave growers and shippers a chance to square off with officials from the Food & Drug Administration, who some grower-shippers feel is an obstacle to their making a living in an increasingly difficult business.

Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst with the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, located in College Park, MD, followed Mr. Brown and discussed pending commodity specific guidelines that target tomatoes, melons, leafy greens and, soon, green onions.

Ms. Smith allowed that the FDA food-safety standards process "at times has been somewhat contentious," especially for tomato growers, who feel they are unfairly singled out among the rest of the nation's produce providers.

But she told the crowd that the troubles are worth the effort. "There is a value to putting an FDA branding on the label," she said. "Buyers are more likely to be comfortable with the product. We had to make some judgment calls. [Commodity specific guidelines] are just the first step - science-based, enforceable standards for produce safety at a cost consistent with the benefit [of] maintaining consumer confidence in our supply of fresh produce."

At a workshop the previous afternoon, growers and shippers had an opportunity to interact with Ms. Smith and did not hesitate to confront her with their concerns. One man from the audience asked why the onus for food safety is placed on growers and shippers when tomato-related problems often occur elsewhere along the supply chain. "Retailers and restaurants don't have the same restrictions and regulations we do," he said. "And there are no signs telling consumers to wash their hands every time they handle a tomato."

"But you guys are the first line of defense," Ms. Smith countered. "When we developed the first guidelines back in 1998, we focused on farms and packinghouses not because we thought they were the primary source of contamination, but because it only makes sense to go back to the beginning. Right now, if produce becomes contaminated, you can't be sure it can be washed off. It's critical that everyone who handles produce does the things they need to do up the chain. We really want people to get the best for the money they spend."

"If it keeps going the way it is, we're not going to have any consumers left," called out another attendee, Terry Risher of MTR Farms in Wauchula, FL. "It seems like it would be less costly to educate consumers than to put the burden all on us. Everyone always wants to point fingers at the farmers and packinghouses. You're not going to have the small farmer any more. You're not going to have the small packinghouses."