Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tomato scare hurts farmers

As the nation once again tries to pinpoint the source of salmonella-tainted food, the agricultural industry in the West probably let out a collective sigh of relief that this time the problem did not originate here.

However, as investigations into the source of the problem continue, Western vegetable growers will remain cautious about how to better prevent this from happening here. They will also analyze how this latest scare with consumers will impact their upcoming sales season.

Fresh and processed tomatoes are worth more than $2 billion in annual farm cash receipts: Fresh-market tomatoes are grown in every state, and commercial production is in 20 states, according to the USDA.

California had the most to win — and lose — as the complicated investigation continues into what caused more than 227 people in 23 states to be sick by June 17, up almost 50 from a week earlier. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had first been alerted of people being ill from salmonella bacteria on May 30.

The challenge has been that people have gotten sick in restaurants as well as homes, and unlike packaged or canned fruits, vegetables or meats, tomatoes don’t have bar code labels and are often placed in big lots from several farms and suppliers. According to a Los Angeles Times story, this is the 13th time since 1990 that an outbreak of salmonella was traced to tomatoes.

The Times quoted Rep. John D. Ingell (D-Mich.) as criticizing FDA and the Bush administration for being so slow to act on FDA’s Food Protection Plan, introduced in November 2007 but which still hasn’t been fully implemented.

“We face yet another food crisis,” the Times quoted Ingell. “It has sickened people, devastated an entire industry and cost consumers, producers and retailers millions of dollars.”

Why was it so important for California to identify the source of the crisis?

California shares with Florida that distinction of being one of the top producers of fresh-market tomatoes, with each state producing 40,000 acres, and together they supply two-thirds to three-fourths of the total U.S. fresh-tomato acreage.

California is the top producer of all tomatoes, with 95 percent of the U.S. fresh processing and one third of the fresh market, reports USDA.

Meanwhile, imports of fresh tomatoes — mainly from Mexico — have grown to be one-third of the tomatoes consumed in the country. Imports increased as tomatoes have grown to be the fourth most-popular fresh-market vegetable.

While those searching for the cause of the salmonella were still searching this week and strongly suspected Mexico and the central and southern parts of Florida, there were fears the exact problem source may never be found.

As long as the sources of salmonella elude investigators, consumers may unfairly and irrationally remain nervous about buying all types of fresh-market tomatoes, no matter how and where they are grown, marketed or prepared for a meal.

Commissioner for Food and Drugs Andrew von Eschenbach in his online commentary last week said the FDA can do better in its programs of “prevention, intervention and response.” This included implementing programs under last November’s food protection plan. While he praised facilities such as the new Pacific Regional Lab Southwest in Los Angeles, for its major food-testing and research capabilities thanks to its “sophisticated scientific tools,” he also stressed the need for Congress to approve more FDA funding “so we can address these emerging new challenges and opportunities.”

Laboratories that rely on state funding also yearn to have more money budgeted this year to deal with food safety concerns.

The next few months will be critical as federal and state legislators decide priorities in preparing to fight future safety issues, and they are urged to ensure the tools and manpower are available to track down salmonella and other food dangers quicker.

Hopefully this latest tomato scare will help squeeze out more money before more problems happen and FDA is forced to play catch-up yet again as consumers’ physical health and farmers’ financial health suffer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Since cooking the tomato would kill any diseases why do farmers plow them under rather than sell them to canners?

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