August 5, 2008

Tomato Growers Want Compensation For Salmonella Scare

Tomato growers involved in the latest salmonella food epidemic are looking to be paid for business lost for false implications made by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

After weeks of saying domestic tomatoes were the culprit in an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, federal food-safety sleuths have shifted the spotlight to jalapeno and then Serrano peppers grown in Mexico. The peppers were suspected in more than 1,300 infections in at least 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

Tomato growers, particularly those in Florida, lost millions of dollars, since the FDA announced on June 7 that certain types of tomatoes shouldn't be eaten nationwide.

By the time the advisory was lifted July 17, growers say they already lost $100 million in sales during the investigation, which they charge was conducted poorly and without enough consultation with them.

"The growers knew the agency hadn't gotten to the source of the problem when the FDA told people to stop eating tomatoes and the illnesses still increased," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group in Washington.

Things got even more problematic for investigators when batteries of tests didn't turn up a single domestic tomato with the bacteria.

These problems have shown the difficulty of conducting international investigations of food-borne illnesses with limited resources and imperfect ways to "trace back" the product to its source.

At the same time, pressure has intensified to solve cases quickly and to pay for "mistakes" made.

David W.K. Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for food, responded at a July 31 hearing that no mistakes had been made and that tomatoes on the market now were safe to eat.

The FDA said it followed the leads provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It found in early interviews with sick people that, overwhelmingly, they had eaten raw tomatoes in salsa or Mexican-style restaurant food.

The Salmonella Saintpaul case began in May when federal and state investigators identified cases of the infection, which can cause serious illness and death, in New Mexico and Texas.

Tomato growers were becoming increasingly critical of the conduct of the investigation. Florida growers supply about half the nation's fresh tomatoes annually.

Now they're hoping Congress will challenge the U.S. government for their losses.

Representative Tim Mahoney, a Democrat from Florida, is sympathetic to the $1.3 billion tomato industry, as are other members of the state's delegation. He introduced a bill on July 24 that would compensate growers and packers for losses up to $100 million.

Mahoney believes they deserve compensation. "They have done nothing. They shouldn't be held accountable. You have indicted an entire industry and left doubt that it's OK to eat tomatoes.'"

"The push to exonerate tomatoes may be premature," said Bill Marler, a food-safety plaintiff attorney with Marler Clark LLP in Seattle.

"Everyone empathizes," Marler said of the industry's losses. He cautioned that imperfect information may have implicated tomatoes, but "we would ask for their heads on a platter if it was tomatoes."

Tomato growers believe they have a case since they don't qualify for other aid programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs crop-insurance programs that cover disasters from floods and hurricanes, not crops ensnared in recalls.

Many companies have recall insurance, but they're not likely to collect unless there is a recall"”not a warning or an advisory.

Produce growers have, indeed, looked to Congress for help other food-safety issues.

According to the United Fresh Produce Association, even though the 2006 bagged spinach recall involving Dole Food Co. and Natural Selection Foods LLC was more contained, growers took a $100 million hit on their crop.

Spinach growers got a financial-aid provision part way through Congress but didn't succeed.

The U.S. banned the entry of seedless grapes from Chile in March 1989, after two grapes had been contaminated with cyanide, leaving Chilean growers, exporters and importers with millions of dollars in losses. The industry tried to recover some $210 million only to get word four years later that a federal judge ruled the FDA wasn't responsible because it was doing its job.

"We got no compensation," said Richard Eastes, a California fruit and vegetable consultant who worked for a company affected by the ban. "It was just a bad dream."