Fresh tomato industry shaken by FDA salmonella link, seeks answers

Fresh market tomato growers in California and Florida are finally off the hook in the Food and Drug Administration’s salmonella alert. However, growers contend the tomato-traced false alarm has cost millions in not only lost sales, but likely has shaken the confidence of American consumers.

While tomato growers finally have been largely absolved of any association with the widespread salmonella outbreak, the six weeks it took for the federal government to clear U.S. tomatoes surely makes growers feel like they have been wronged. After all, the false alarm losses have so far added up to $100 million-plus due to lower prices and reduced demand resulting in some fields plowed out.

California fresh tomato growers dodged the worst impact of the salmonella issue since fresh tomatoes were not yet on the market when the FDA first found the bacteria.

This latest nationwide food-borne illness scare with tomatoes echoes back to the E. coli spinach panic of 2006 when what turned out to be one harvest from a single field of spinach literally destroyed the spinach market overnight from which the industry has yet to fully recover.

Western Growers, a trade association whose California and Arizona members grow, pack, and ship half of the nation’s fresh produce, estimated losses to the spinach industry at about $100 million.

U.S. tomato growers hope what has happened to them is not a repeat of past history. Tomato growers hope in two years from now they are not still trying to regain consumer confidence.

The FDA first linked red plum, red round, and red roma fresh tomatoes as potential sources for an outbreak of the Salmonella Saintpaul bacteria. Over the next few months about 1,300 cases of salmonella were found in 42 states.

At a congressional hearing in late July, FDA Food Safety Chief David Acheson confirmed that a sample of a serrano pepper and irrigation water on a farm in Nuevo Leon, Mexico had the same genetic blueprint of the bacteria strain causing the illness. Acheson urged consumers not to consume serrano peppers from Mexico.

Earlier the FDA traced the salmonella strain to a single jalapeno pepper at a farm in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The U.S. fresh tomato industry is still reeling over the negative impact of the FDA announcement: strained consumer confidence, reduced space for tomatoes in supermarket produce aisles, and about 50 percent lower fresh tomato prices for growers on certain varieties. While some growers were paid less, some grocery stores raised tomato prices.

“California fresh tomato growers are not nearly as devastated as our counterparts were in Florida or Mexico from this outbreak,” said Ed Beckman, president, California Tomato Farmers, Fresno, Calif.

Members of the California Tomato Farmers produce eight out of every 10 fresh tomatoes in California from June to November on about 250 ranches located from Sacramento County in the north to San Diego in the south.

“The end result is that (FDA) warnings went out and the response by a number of tomato customers was the panic mode and tomatoes were pulled off store shelves and menus,” Beckman said.

California is the nation’s second largest fresh tomato producer behind Florida. Last year 41,000 California acres yielded 12,300 thousand hundredweight of tomatoes valued at $392 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). California fresh tomatoes are consumed domestically in states west of the Mississippi River, and are exported to Mexico, Canada, and Japan.

Florida growers brought in 37,000 harvested acres last year producing 14,553 thousand hundredweight valued at $464 million, NASS said.

The U.S. fresh tomato industry faces an uphill battle in regaining markets and consumer confidence.

“The industry is recovering in food service, but I think we’ll have a tougher time at retail,” Beckman said. “With food service a person orders a burger or sandwich and doesn’t think twice about tomatoes on it. When consumers walked up to a tomato display at the grocery store, there were weeks (after the FDA announcement) when there was more signage than tomatoes in the display. A lot of consumers stopped buying tomatoes.”

An investigation is underway on the conclusions drawn by the FDA and the Center for Disease Control, and why the FDA’s investigation on fresh tomatoes has taken so long.

“We have to get to the bottom of this and not allow the tomato issue to linger,” Beckman said. “If it lingers, this will haunt us in the future. That is the number one issue now — focusing on the investigation into what went right and wrong. A mechanism is needed so we never go through this again.”

Part of the examination should include an in-depth analysis of the FDA’s investigation including the traceback records, Beckman said in testimony before a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee in July. The review should identify why the tomato investigation was inconclusive.

Florida Congressman Tim Mahoney, a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, introduced H.R. 6581 to compensate tomato growers and packers nationwide for salmonella-related losses.

“The FDA’s warnings about tomatoes devastated the $1.3 billion (U.S.) tomato industry,” Rep. Mahoney said. “Due to the timing of the salmonella outbreak, Florida was hit hard. We need to ensure that all impacted (U.S.) tomato growers and packers are compensated for their losses to protect domestic food production.”

California Rep. Sam Farr (D-17th district) is co-sponsoring the legislation which has also earned Beckman’s support.

“The salmonella-tomato issue is no different than a natural disaster,” Beckman said. “Growers had no say in this issue and there have been substantial losses across the country. We appreciate the members of Congress who are stepping forward to provide some measure of restitution.”

California farmers grow tomatoes for the fresh and processing markets. The wide majority of California’s tomato production is for processing. According to NASS, 296,000 acres produced 12 million tons of processing tomatoes last year valued at $849 million. While California is the nation’s largest processing tomato producer, China is the world’s leader followed by the U.S.

California processing tomato growers have not been impacted as much by the FDA’s tomato investigation, according to Ross Siragusa, president of the California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA). CTGA members grow about half, 5.5 million tons, of the state’s processing tomato crop.

Siragusa said, “I think most consumers look at fresh market and processing tomatoes as separate items — fresh market for salads and sandwiches, and processing for soups and pasta sauces.” Processing tomatoes include a heat step designed to kill any pathogen.

The Tomato Products Wellness Council, of which the CTGA, tomato processors, and branded marketers are members, has provided FDA and the media with information on the safety of processing tomatoes hoping to ensure FDA news releases don’t characterize tomatoes as a whole.

“We have said our (processing tomato) products are safe, but we’re not trying to denigrate the fresh market tomato industry,” Siragusa said.

How has the FDA-salmonella issue affected greenhouse-grown tomatoes? Eurofresh Farms based in Willcox, Ariz., is the largest grower of greenhouse tomatoes in North America. The company plans to produce 200 million pounds of fresh tomatoes this year on 318 acres at their facilities in Willcox and Snowflake, Ariz.

“In the short-term we’ve seen little to no effect probably because all of our products are marketed in clusters or on the vine,” said Eurofresh CEO Dwight Ferguson. More than 70 percent of Eurofresh’s production is pre-sold through programs and contracts ranging from three months to one year.

“In the longer term we’re a little wary that consumers may have lost confidence in tomato purchases,” Ferguson said.

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