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
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
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.