July 6, 2008

Salmonella Scare Has Damaged Tomato Sales

A nationwide salmonella scare has left tomato farmers reeling from financial losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Industry leaders are now calling for a congressional investigation into the government's handling of the outbreak. 

Losses across the supply chain top $100 million, but the source of the outbreak has still not been determined. U.S. tomato farmers have plowed their fields, only to leave the crop rotting in packinghouses.

Tomato farmers say the hot selling summer season has already withered away: the Fourth of July holiday is normally one of the top tomato weekends. So far, the outbreak has sickened an estimated 922 people, but the government says they're now investigating if other fresh produce may have caused the salmonella.

"Now the government has a doubt as to whether it was tomatoes after they've already blackened our eye?" said Paul DiMare, president of The DiMare Companies in Johns Island, S.C.

Farmers, packers and shippers fear it could take months to rebuild the $1.3 billion market for fresh tomatoes.

DiMare said, "June and July are the best time of the year for tomatoes, but our movement has completely stopped in the United States."

The last few weeks, McDonald's Corp. (MCD), Wendy's International Inc. (WEN) and Yum Brands Inc. (YUM) began offering limited tomatoes on their menus.

In Fresno County, one farmer lost $225,000 by letting his tomatoes rot in the fields this weekend because it would have been more expensive to harvest them, said Ed Beckman, president of the statewide cooperative California Tomato Farmers.

"This is normally a huge week for the industry because everyone barbecues, but we're just not seeing that demand materialize," Beckman said. "We are slowly starting to see consumers recognize that California tomatoes are, in fact, safe. But for a grower to walk away from a $225,000 investment, there's a lot of pain."

The price per 25-pound box of red round tomatoes dropped from $16 to just $10 in Ruskin, Florida, after the outbreak began in early June. Tony DiMare said he had no choice but to let the fruit turn to mush at the family's packing facilities. His customers simply refused to pick up their orders.

"It's like pulling teeth right now trying to move product," he said. "We've been kind of guilty by association in this blunder of an investigation."

DiMare joins others in the produce industry that are critical of the Food and Drug Administration's progress on the investigation.

FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials blame the enormous supply chain, and the sheer complexity of the outbreak for slowing down efforts to find the sources of contamination.

Federal agriculture authorities visited Florida packinghouses and tomato farms on a special mission to assess food safety conditions in April. That was just days before the first victim fell ill.

Immokalee, - is considered a possible origin of the outbreak.  FDA investigators found "conditions and practices of concern," including the presence of domestic animals, problems with the water system and poor sanitation.

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said all facilities corrected the problems immediately and none were deemed "egregious."  But officials say they can't rule out the possibility that salmonella may be linked to one of those locations.

Red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes harvested in the area during that period were later shipped out to market. They have not been cleared as the source, but they also aren't proven as the cause.

DiMare, said investigators found no problems with his company's repacking plant in Ruskin. He said it would be tough for inspectors to find traces of salmonella on farms now, weeks after harvest ended. 

Last week, the FDA said tomatoes harvested weeks ago could have contaminated packing sheds or warehouses that are only now sending their products to market. The source said also a possibility that the source itself is still on the market or a different kind of produce is making people sick.

Western Growers, which represents 3,000 growers in California and Arizona, is pressuring the House Committee on Agriculture to hold hearings on the outbreak.

"The collateral damage inflicted on thousands of innocent producers in this country by FDA blanket 'advisories,' such as with spinach and tomatoes, cannot go unchallenged," said the group's president, Tom Nassif. "Congress must investigate this matter and determine ways to avoid this in the future and make the innocent tomato growers, packers and shippers whole."