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The last two years have been a precarious maze for Florida tomato growers. First, the industry was wrongly blamed for a 2008 Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds. Then came January's freezes that wiped out 80 percent of the winter crop. In between -- and ongoing -- the industry is wrestling with a tangle of self-regulation, and state and pending federal legislation that could make a lawyer blush.

One would think that given circumstances like that, tomato farmers would be a confused and discouraged bunch. Instead, they have rallied, and the Maitland, FL-based Florida Tomato Committee has led the way.

The Florida Senate recently passed legislation that regulates the state tomato industry; similar legislation is expected to clear the House of Representatives any day. The legislation mimics regulations Florida growers have imposed on themselves, a process that began even before 2008's bad press. The legislation is the first of its kind in the nation.

"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 [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] and our own industry. We think it will be a model for the entire country," committee manager Reggie Brown said.

That is representative of the kind of work the Florida Tomato Committee is doing year round. At the forefront of its tasks this spring is letting retail and foodservice buyers know that Florida is still in the tomato business despite a dreadful winter.

"We have a promotable volume of Florida tomatoes," said Samantha Winters, the committee's director of education and promotion. "We've been meeting with these buyers. They understand our pride and what we've been going through, and they want to get behind our product and support it. From what we're hearing from them, they're enthusiastic and supportive and looking forward to the spring season."

Part of the reason for that enthusiasm is ongoing consumer research conducted by the committee. "A big part of what we're doing this season is research. We want to learn more about our shopper and what sorts of promotional activities really speak to that person, what motivates them to buy more of our tomatoes, more often, making sure they are aware of what the industry is doing to guarantee a quality, safe product," Ms. Winters said. That research will in turn translate into promotional programs for retail, Ms. Winters said.

"I think we'll have a lot of good strategies coming out of this season," she said. "We are looking forward to a good spring crop, and we have lots of retail promotions for the month of May. We've basically canvassed the Northeast and Southeast regions [which] combined move about 70 percent of the total tomato volume at retail. We've been in front of 90 percent of the chains, and we estimate we have promotions engaged with about 75 percent of them. We're getting these buyers to start thinking about Florida tomatoes again. We've got some great things happening at retail, and we're really trying to make a strong impact."

Now through the first week of June, the committee will have customized retail promotions throughout the Northeast and Southeast including store demos, sales contests, display contests and educational materials. To find out more, visit floridatomatoes.org.

(For more on the Florida spring produce deal, see the April 12, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)