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A Sour Taste or Sweet Embrace?

July 19, 2008

By Jennifer Gish, Albany Times Union, N.Y.

Jul. 19–Mike Ryan, vice president of W.F. Ryan Produce in Colonie, doesn’t want to be one to say “I told you so” when it came to the tomato scare, but he did.

When the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers on June 7 that certain tomato varieties may be the source of a nationwide salmonella outbreak, Ryan didn’t pull a single tomato off the shelves, choosing instead to talk to his customers about the safety practices of the farmers who supply his store and his confidence in them. He shared third-party farm inspection reports with customers and posted signs detailing where his tomatoes were grown.

On Thursday, the FDA lifted its warning, turning instead to raw jalapeno and serrano peppers as the possible source of contamination. But the damage had already been done to the tomato industry, which was left with tons of produce rotting in the field while many consumers left tomatoes out of their salads and off their sandwiches, Ryan said.

The question now is, when will those customers come back to the tomato bins?

“It’s a terrible scare factor that goes on with anything that’s food-related, and it gets everybody excited, and they jump ship,” Ryan said, adding that it took a month and a half for spinach sales to bounce back after the 2006 FDA warnings about potentially contaminated spinach. “Consumer confidence then had been destroyed by information that could have been more accurate.”

When the FDA warnings about tomatoes were released, Price Chopper and Hannaford stores both pulled certain varieties off the shelves and sought supplies from states that were not under FDA suspicion. Some have estimated the economic impact to tomato growers to be from $100 to $500 million.

Although the scare has led to questions about the ability to track down contamination sources in the food supply, it’s not likely that the shadows cast on the tomato industry will have long-lasting impact. That’s not how consumers typically behave, said Douglas Lonnstrom, professor of statistics at Siena College and founding director of the Siena Research Institute.

“Consumers do bounce back. They react to news, and if we find now all of the sudden that tomatoes are now safe, my guess is that they’ll come back and buy tomatoes,” he said. “The consumer reacts pretty quickly to the news in both directions.”

Mona Golub, spokeswoman for Price Chopper, said the grocery chain didn’t experience a drop in sales as a result of the FDA warning.

“In truth, I think consumer confidence has been more shaken in the FDA and the CDC (also involved in the investigation) than in the product itself,” she said. “It’s all about communication. I think both instances (spinach and tomatoes) show a failure in communication, and consumers deserve to know what information is available so they can make informed choices.”

Tracking the source of the salmonella outbreak — which has hit more than 1,200 people in 42 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada — has been difficult, leading to the spotty and slow release of information from the government. The FDA’s initial warning covered raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes and offered a short list of states and territories that were “safe suppliers.” That list of suppliers grew slowly in the following weeks.

The recent FDA warning about raw jalapeno and serrano peppers is narrower in focus, suggesting that “people in high-risk populations, such as elderly persons, infants and people with impaired immune systems, should avoid eating raw jalapeno and raw serrano peppers.”

Ryan said consumer concerns would be allayed if people had better knowledge of where their food comes from and what safety measures are in place. Those questions can be answered if you get to know your retailer or your farmer, he said.

Unlike spinach sales, Ryan said he expects tomato sales — which never lagged at his store — to pick up quickly nationwide. In an effort to deal with the tomato surplus created by the scare, tomato prices overall have dropped 20 to 25 percent since the FDA released the warning, he said.

And, this is the season when tomatoes share the spotlight with melons, sweet corn and other summer staples.

“It will bounce back a little bit faster because tomatoes are a lot more popular,” Ryan said, adding that the local tomato crop is only about a week away. Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail at jgish@timesunion.com.

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