Tomato Growers in Red, Seek Green

Posted July 22, 2008 at 6:43pm

Tomato growers are testing whether they have the juice on Capitol Hill to extract payments from the government in the wake of federal officials linking their product to a massive salmonella outbreak.

Lobbyists and tomato executives say they want compensation for what they characterize as devastation to their industry, especially now that the salmonella strain has been found on a jalapeno pepper imported from Mexico.

And two lawmakers from Florida, a major tomato-producing state, agree. Democratic Reps. Tim Mahoney and Allen Boyd are putting the finishing touches on a bill that could be introduced as early as today that would compensate all domestic tomato growers.

“We need to make sure we protect our tomato industry and protect our growers,” Mahoney said. “This crop year was the most expensive year in the history of agriculture in terms of planting, with high fuel and fertilizer costs. Then to have this happen, through no fault of their own, my growers were seeing not only a 50 percent reduction in price but a 30 percent reduction in demand.”

In upcoming hearings next week and in private lobbying meetings, the tomato industry also will ask Congress to change the way the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration investigate such outbreaks in the future.

Many produce lobbyists say they support new governmental task forces that would include industry insiders to help investigate outbreaks — a proposal that some consumer advocates oppose.

Mahoney said he supports a larger industry role in the future, though he acknowledged that there must be a balance that allows the regulators to oversee the industry.

“There’s frustration because the growers feel that had the FDA worked with them, they probably could’ve gotten to this a lot faster. They felt they were shut out of the process,” Mahoney said. “We need to make sure going forward that we listen to these people.”

Produce industry lobbyists say the devastation to tomato crops will likely continue. A 2006 salmonella outbreak caused by tainted spinach has scared off spinach consumers even today, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents growers, distributors and others in the produce supply chain.

“An episode like this can have really long-term effects,” Stenzel said. “The preponderance of evidence is that tomatoes did not cause this outbreak.”

He estimated that the focus on tomatoes cost the industry more than $200 million in losses. He plans to testify on July 31 at an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing, where he will ask the committee to look at having CDC or FDA create task forces with industry representation. “If you’re trying to investigate, you ought to ask the experts,” he said. “It certainly would have to be a transparent process.”

But consumer advocates aren’t keen on the idea.

“You can’t put the industry in charge of policing itself,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I don’t think we can privatize the role of outbreak investigation.”

Instead, Smith DeWaal said, the government needs to craft a better produce tracking system so the source of tainted food can be traced more easily. She said that in the past, produce industry lobbyists have fought off measures that could have helped FDA find the source faster.

“The harm from this outbreak is monumental both to consumers and industry, but I don’t think the industry deserves compensation,” she said. “The industry needs to go back and look in the mirror to see who may have been responsible for how long this investigation has taken.”

Not surprisingly, industry sources disagree.

Industry has an important role to play, said Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, whose members import produce including jalapenos and tomatoes from Mexico.

“Being on the front lines, we’re in the position at the ports of entry to see what’s working, what’s not working,” she said, adding that her group, whose D.C. lobbyist is Jessica Wasserman, supports more resources for the FDA and CDC.

There should also be a standardized process of reporting illness outbreaks in each state, she said.

John Himmelberg, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Tomato Exchange, said tomato growers in the Sunshine State have embraced some of the toughest tracing systems around and still have lost more than $100 million this year.

“There was not one test of any tomatoes coming out of Florida that indicated Florida was the source,” Himmelberg said. “And Florida tomato folks are way ahead of the food safety curve. They have a mandatory food safety program, under state law, for the growers and packers. We really believe we have the best food safety system for perishable food in the world.”

He said the relief that his tomato client is asking for is akin to disaster relief, much like that for farmers devastated by floods or hurricanes. Tomatoes, like most fruits and vegetables, are not part of the federal program that subsidizes farmers.

Florida growers aren’t the only ones hit by the outbreak. Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers, was in town this week to lobby Capitol Hill on the issue. He said his members’ retail sales are down 40 percent to 50 percent and that the salmonella scare has hurt California tomato exports to Canada, Mexico and Japan.

“We have a long way to go in terms of recovery before we’re actually able to put a dollar figure on the amount of the loss,” he said in between lobbying visits.

He said his main message to Members is that an outbreak like this can’t happen again.

“We need to have a better understanding of the roadblocks that FDA encountered in their own trace-backs, and see what FDA could learn from industry trace-backs,” he said. “There clearly needs to be an understanding of what went right and what didn’t go right.”