September 29, 2008

Replant Seeds Of Perception

By Chambers, Heather

Much of the attention surrounding tomatoes thought to have been contaminated by salmonella bacteria has passed, but San Diego growers said they still fight misperceptions about locally grown produce that could cost them significant profits in the long run.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said lingering perceptions about tainted tomatoes have placed a "shadow" over the industry.

"People walk right by the tomatoes because they have this concern lurking in the back of their heads," he said.

More than two months have passed since U.S. health officials first pointed to raw, red tomatoes as the potential culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 1,400 people, including 13 Californians, and was linked to two deaths nationwide.

The FDA issued a warning June 3 about tomatoes in New Mexico and Texas, and later expanded the warning to all states. On June 5, the FDA deemed tomatoes grown and harvested in California safe.

By late June, health officials had failed to connect the tomatoes with a rare strain of salmonella called Salmonella Saintpaul.

In early July, they had turned their attention to jalapeno and serrano peppers as possible culprits.

Then, in late July, the FDA announced it had traced a tainted pepper from Texas to a farm in Mexico, which health officials said tested positive for the rare strain of salmonella. A sample of its irrigation water also tested positive.

Tomatoes, it seemed, were off the hook.

Slow To Rebound

While most restaurants have resumed placing the seedy fruit in burgers, salads and sauces, consumers have yet to fully welcome tomatoes back.

Stuck in between are San Diego's tomato growers, who say they suffer most from mixed messages and misperceptions.

"We haven't returned to full strength on the retail side yet," said Bill Weber, president and director of sales and marketing for Oceanside Produce, the marketing arm of North County tomato grower Harry Singh & Sons. "There's still some hesitation there from people taking them off the shelves and it's still having an effect."

In San Diego, tomatoes rank fifth in terms of money-making crops Tomato crops brought in $88 million to the county last year, trailing behind avocados at $127 million, according to the latest county crop report released this month.

Larson, with the farm bureau, said it's premature to estimate any losses for the local industry, but pointed, to estimates that place nationwide losses at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Researchers with the Western Growers Association, a group that represents Arizona and California produce farmers, estimated that California farmers could face at least $13 million in losses so far this year.

"The full impact remains to be seen," said Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Locally Grown

At a recent Tuesday afternoon farmers market in Coronado, produce stands were thick with people lined up to buy tomatoes from local growers.

"Tomatoes are actually, right now, one of our bigger sellers," said Lulu Valdivia, a sales associate with Carlsbad's Valdivia Farms.

She and other tomato growers at the Coronado market said they've noticed an uptick in business since the FDA warnings. Most of them attributed a rise in sales to consumers moving away from grocery store produce toward a locally grown and certified product.

Coronado, like many farmers markets across the county, limits sellers from offering anything other than locally grown products.

"I suppose like everyone I'm a little scared about things coming from out of the country," said Coronado resident Dennis Dorman, who took home a bag of vine-ripe tomatoes grown at Valdivia. "You take your chances, but the fact that these are grown locally, right here in the U.S., reduces your chances."

Copyright San Diego Business Journal Aug 18, 2008

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