Handling of Salmonella outbreak prompts industry to seek relief

by Stephanie XBloyd
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WASHINGTON — Members of the tomato industry held a meeting with Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach on July 14 and asked the agency to remove tomatoes from the list of suspects in the recent string of Salmonella outbreaks. Three days later, the F.D.A. officially rescinded its consumer warning about certain varieties of tomatoes.

"This is not saying that anybody was absolved," said Dr. David Acheson, director of food safety for the F.D.A. "What we’re saying right now is informing consumers that tomatoes that are currently in stores and coming on to the market — domestic and imported — are okay."

Since April, 1,220 people in 42 states and Canada have been diagnosed with Salmonella saintpaul infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.). On July 9, the F.D.A. advised people with a heightened risk of severe infection not to eat raw jalapeño peppers or raw serrano peppers.

In a statement released July 17, the F.D.A. said it is, "continuing to follow epidemiological and other evidence showing that raw jalapeno and raw serrano peppers now available in the domestic market may be linked to illnesses in this outbreak. At this time, people in high risk populations, such as elderly persons, infants and people with impaired immune systems, should avoid eating raw jalapeño and raw serrano peppers."

Cilantro also has been cited as a suspect in the outbreaks.

As the search for the source of the Salmonella outbreaks continues, the tomato industry is rallying congressional support to gain compensation for lost income. And while U.S. officials launch an investigation of jalapeño peppers, restaurants nationwide are pulling them off menus, setting the stage for similar pepper industry losses.

Sales for tomato varieties implicated by the F.D.A. dropped nearly 50% in June, while volume in the overall tomato category dropped 17% from a year ago, according to a report from the Perishables Group.

Industry officials from Florida currently are lining up support from local congressional representatives to make the case for compensation.

"After four weeks of destroying the tomato industry, we have people facing bankruptcy without compensation," said J. Luis Rodriguez, trade adviser to Florida Farmers Inc. "Someone really screwed up. They should’ve been able within a week to pinpoint the source of the outbreak. A lot of people have lost money, not only the growers, but the packing houses, workers who pick the crops, and truckers. It’s very, very possible that these losses will go to $100 million in Florida alone."

Mr. Rodriguez said his group has gained support from Charles H. Bronson, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as well as Congressman Allen Boyd of Florida, whose district’s tomato industry was affected.

"It seems like the last two years have been disasters price wise, and here we were sitting on a decent market," Mr. Rodriguez said. "It turned out, what we could sell this year was way under the cost of production. So much of it stayed in the field and rotted on the vines. At some point, it doesn’t pay to risk putting it all in a truck, especially with the cost of fuel these days."

The pepper industry appears poised to take a similar hit as restaurant chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Abuelo’s stopped serving raw jalapeño peppers.

Food industry groups, such as the Western Growers Association, have called for an investigation of the government inquiry.

"Congress must investigate this matter and determine ways to avoid this in the future and make the innocent tomato growers, packers and shippers whole," said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers. "Our industry has taken dramatic steps to develop the strongest practices possible to prevent contamination in the field and throughout the supply chain. Now it is time to look at how F.D.A. ‘intervenes’ in the event of an outbreak and how they ‘communicate’ with the public and industry to ensure that public health is protected without the irreparable destruction of agricultural economies."

The F.D.A. continues to cite faulty industry traceability as a cause for the slow-moving investigation. At the July 17 press conference on tomatoes, Mr. Acheson said it’s possible that a single, large farm grew both tomatoes and peppers, then sent both through a common washing station that had contaminated water. He added that the F.D.A.’s strongest lead at this point is a Mexican packing house that supplied jalapeño peppers linked to one cluster of illnesses.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 23, 2008, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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