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Tomato Plants Removed From Shelves

July 3, 2009

Stores in several states are removing tomato plants from their shelves as an infectious and destructive plant disease makes its earliest and most widespread appearance ever in the eastern United States.

Late blight occurs intermittently in the northeastern U.S., but this year’s outbreak is more serious, as rainy weather has hastened the spores’ airborne spread and infected plants have been widely distributed by large retail chains.

Although the disease, the same one responsible for the 1840s Irish Potato Famine, is not harmful to humans, it is highly contagious and likely spread on store shelves to nearby uninfected plants, experts say.

It can also spread after plants reach their final destination, further increasing the risk to other tomato and potato plants in commercial fields and home gardens.

Cornell University professor of plant pathology, Meg McGrath, said late blight was “worse than the Bubonic Plague for plants.”

“People need to realize this is probably one of the worst diseases we have in the vegetable world,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s certain death for a tomato plant.”

Wal Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Kmart have removed tomato plants from their stores in all six New England states and New York.

Late blight has also been identified in all East Coast states except Georgia, McGrath said, and has been found in Ohio, Alabama and West Virginia.

It is too early in the season to be sure whether the infected plants will negatively affect large crops or commercial growers, something that could result in higher prices.

Various state agriculture officials are working to identify the origin of the outbreak. 

Alabama-based Bonnie Plants, one of the nation’s major growers and suppliers of tomato plants to large retail stores, said it is not certain whether the plants were infected before or after leaving their greenhouses.

“There’s no way in the world you can pin this on one plant company, but we just happen to be the biggest,” the company’s general manager, Dennis Thomas, told the AP.

Bonnie Plants has consistently inspected its greenhouses in 38 states, including Maine, New Hampshire and New York. Its latest inspections in New Jersey and Pennsylvania revealed no evidence of late blight.

“We’ve not been written up one time for any late blight disease that was confirmed,” said Thomas, adding that the company sprays the seedlings before shipping them to out the stores.

However, that doesn’t happen after the plants arrive, he said. Thomas claims the company took proactive steps in removing plants once the outbreak occurred.

For now, experts are warning gardeners to be on the lookout for the late blight, and to act quickly if it appears. The initial sign is often brown spots on plant stems, followed by nickel-sized brown or green spots on the tops of leaves and fuzzy white fungal growth on the bottom of the leaves. The tomatoes themselves will show firm, brown spots, experts say.

Although spraying with fungicides can control late blight if started prior to the emergence of symptoms, experts recommend removing and destroying the plants entirely to prevent the spores from spreading.

Donald Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said the state’s potato farmers are also concerned.

“It’s pretty easy to make our growers aware of it, that’s the simple part. But what we’ve started to do is really reach out to home gardeners throughout Maine to ask them to be very diligent about checking their tomato plants or potato plants,” he told the AP.

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