July 9, 2008

Farmers Angry About Government Inquiry Dwindling Market Has Some Letting Crops Rot

FRESNO, Calif. - Expect fewer slices of red, ripe tomatoes next to the grill this holiday weekend.

Since a salmonella scare has caused many customers to shun what's normally a summer favorite, tomato farmers across the nation have had to plow under their fields and leave their crop to rot in packinghouses.

As losses across the supply chain top $100 million, industry leaders are calling for a congressional investigation into the government's handling of the unsolved outbreak.

McDonald's Corp., Wendy's International Inc. and Yum Brands Inc. resumed offering some tomatoes on their menus in the past few weeks. But tomato farmers say their summer season has already withered despite U.S. authorities' announcement that some other type of fresh produce might have caused the country's largest salmonella outbreak.

The outbreak has sickened 922 people in 40 states, including Georgia.

"Now the government has a doubt as to whether it was tomatoes after they've already blackened our eye?" said Paul DiMare, the president of The DiMare Cos. in Johns Island, S.C. "June and July are the best time of the year for tomatoes, but our movement has completely stopped in the United States."

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

In Fresno County, one grower chose to lose $225,000 by letting his tomatoes rot in the fields this weekend because he would have taken a bigger hit hiring crews to harvest them, said Ed Beckman, the president of the statewide cooperative California Tomato Farmers.

In Ruskin, Fla., where Mr. DiMare's son Tony oversees the packing facilities for the family business, the price per 25-pound box of red round tomatoes dropped from $16 to $10 after the outbreak began in early June. Tony DiMare said he had no choice but to let the fruit turn to mush because customers 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."

Like others in the produce trade, Mr. DiMare is critical of the Food and Drug Administration's progress on the investigation.

Officials with the FDA and Cen-ters for Disease Control and Prevention have said the complexity of the outbreak and the industry's vast international supply chain have hampered efforts to find the sources of contamination.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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