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Tomato growers scramble after outbreak

Tomato growers scrambled Tuesday to deal with the fallout from an outbreak of salmonella illness traced to eating certain types of tomatoes.
/ Source: news services

Tomato growers scrambled Tuesday to deal with the fallout from an outbreak of salmonella illness traced to eating certain types of tomatoes.

Shipments of tomatoes from Mexico to the United States have stopped, according to a major tomato-growers' association, while Florida officials warned that their industry is in a state of "complete collapse" due to the outbreak.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there have been 167 cases of salmonellosis since mid-April, including 23 that required hospitalization, associated with consumption of raw tomatoes.

The FDA's Web page on the outbreak has a "safe list" of 19 states and six countries whose produce is not associated with the outbreak. As of the latest update Tuesday, Florida and Mexico have been left off the list.

“We probably have $40 million worth of product we can’t sell. We’ve had to stop packing, stop picking,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

The FDA has approved a plan that will allow key growing areas in Florida to resume shipping tomatoes, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture. Under the plan, Florida tomatoes will be shipped with a certificate indicating that they came from areas in the state that were not harvesting prior to May 1, when the outbreak began.

"We therefore plan to update our Web posting this evening to indicate the geographic regions in Florida from which red round, Roma and plum tomatoes are identified as not the source of the outbreak," Faye Feldstein, acting director of the FDA's office of food defense, communication and emergency response, told Florida officials in an e-mail.

The e-mail was made available to by Florida state officials.

The outbreak was linked to eating certain raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes, and products containing these tomatoes. Several major restaurant and grocery chains have stopped selling those varieties.

“It fundamentally shut down the industry,” said Brown. “The stuff that should have been harvested over the weekend won’t survive more than another day or so. The stuff we have in storage is getting riper every minute and at some point it will have to be disposed of.”

Florida is the largest tomato-producing state, with a crop valued at $500 million to $700 million annually, he said. The state produces more than 90 percent of the nation’s tomatoes this time of year, Brown said.

But the concern is hardly limited to Florida as growers fear the outbreak could cast a pall over their product for the prime summer season.

“Even though our tomatoes are safe, we know consumers are going to stay away from our product this year,” said Jack King, the California Farm Bureau Federation’s national affairs manager. “The lesson we learned with the spinach E. coli outbreak is that regardless of where the problem exists, it affects all growers.”

The FDA has said that it is safe to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached. But those varieties account for only a tiny portion of the industry, Brown said.

Federal officials are still hunting for the source of the bacterial outbreak, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is linked to a rare strain called salmonella saintpaul.

The infections have struck most often in New Mexico and Texas.

If the federal government takes weeks to uncover the source, the damage to the industry could grow, industry experts warned.

“This is a nightmare for growers. This is right when their product should be coming to market, and everyone is saying don’t buy it,” said Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based nonprofit. “The tragedy is that people will quit eating things that are safe because they’re worried.”

A spokesman for the Sinaloa state Tomato Growers Association says exports from Mexico have been halted as a precaution. So far there is no evidence that the salmonella originated in Mexico, which accounts for about one-third of winter tomatoes in the United States.

Salmonella bacteria are frequently responsible for food-borne illnesses. Symptoms generally appear within 12 to 72 hours after eating infected food and include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.