July 27, 2008

Tomato Growers Get to Gripe


WASHINGTON Tomato growers can thwack the Food and Drug Administration next week, but their try for federal funds could be a long shot.

Two separate congressional hearings will enable California and Florida growers to bash the FDA for supposedly blowing the investigation of a recent salmonella outbreak. Regulators initially raised warning flags about tomatoes, costing farmers a bundle before suspicions turned to jalapeno peppers.

"Clearly, the FDA has done a very poor job at tracking this outbreak," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif. "They blamed the wrong industry."

Cardoza chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, one of two House panels convening food safety hearings next week. The other panel, an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, recently sent investigators to California's Central Valley to delve into the problem.

Four Florida lawmakers have introduced legislation compensating tomato growers and packers nationwide for their losses, which the Florida Tomato Exchange pegs at $100 million.

Few doubt the FDA's warnings hurt business. California tomato exports to Canada have dropped by one-third, and retail tomato sales between San Diego and Seattle were down at least 40 percent in June, according to Ed Beckman of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers.

Politically alluring for rural lawmakers, the compensation proposal nonetheless faces several practical hurdles.

One problem is the effect a compensation program would have on food safety regulators. Extracting what could be interpreted as a $100 million fine from the federal government for issuing a food safety warning that was based on the best information available could send a chilling signal, some fear.

(c) 2008 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.