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