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Fla. Senate approves tomato food-safety bill

by Chip Carter | March 24, 2010
The Florida Senate passed a first-of-its-kind food-safety bill March 23 that gives teeth to self-imposed regulations put in place by the state's tomato industry in the wake of a Salmonella scare two years ago.

A virtually identical bill is already through committee and on the floor of the state House of Representatives.

Florida tomatoes were wrongly blamed for a Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada in 2008 between April 16 and Aug. 11. The source was later found to be tainted Jalapeño peppers from Mexico, but the damage to the Florida tomato industry was done. In fact, even now, a quick Internet search turns up scads of articles blaming the outbreak on Florida tomatoes but few that follow the story through to its correct conclusion.

The House and Senate bills mimic regulations Florida growers have imposed on themselves, a process that began even before the outbreak in 2008. They also set a standard that will likely affect other segments of the produce industry in the coming weeks and months as state and federal legislative bodies weigh consumer and industry concerns about food safety.

"We've had those negative experiences that galvanized us to be extremely proactive and aggressive in dealing with this," Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, based in Maitland, FL, told The Produce News March 24. "We have the program in place, and now we have government regulation to back it up. We have the only functional food-safety government program for produce in the country, with government-mandated regulations that we collaboratively worked on to address the food-safety concerns of both the FDA and our own industry. We think it will be a model for the entire country."

The Senate bill sets minimum safety standards and authorizes the state agriculture department to inspect farms, greenhouses and packinghouses. Florida growers will each pay about $100 annually to fund the inspection program.

The legislation passed the Senate with a 35-1 vote and is expected to be approved by the House within two weeks. The bills could be law by the time the 2010-11 Florida tomato season begins.

The new regulations are the first to cover links in the food chain other than at the grower-shipper level, according to growers. That topic has been something of a sore spot in the tomato industry, with grower-shippers having questioned the wisdom of a system that held them accountable for what happened to their crop after it left the shipping dock. The new regulations apply to everyone who grows, distributes or handles tomatoes before they reach consumers.

Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, FL, told The Produce News, "What has generally happened in the past, [growers] would agree to regulation but they didn't want there to be any teeth in it. We realized there had to be teeth in it for the public to believe it. The public has to understand we are serious about growing product in a safe environment and making sure the end product is a safe product. We feel like it's been done, and we'll continue to tweak this over the years as we see things we need to add to it."

Most Florida growers have already been following the regulations that will now likely become law.

The Senate bill is "the final piece in a program that we started putting into motion three or four years ago," Mr. Brown said. "Sometimes, when the lawyers get through with it, there are changes; those minor changes in the program will be implemented in the coming year. We had good enforcement this fall with the program as it was structured, but this will improve it. Anyone who violates the food-safety program for tomatoes threatens the tomato industry in Florida, and we now have a regulatory environment that brings those people into the party. Food safety is about public trust and the tomato industry is committed to maintaining that trust."

With about 32,000 acres planted, Florida typically produces about half the nation's domestic tomato supply.