Va. Tomato Farmers Fear Backlash

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By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

PARKSLEY, Va. -- Here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, tens of millions of dollars' worth of fledgling tomato plants are budding, green and healthy-looking, growing toward the July harvest.

The Food and Drug Administration has declared Virginia's tomatoes safe, untainted by the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 228 people in 23 states since April. Even so, growers such as Gary Stewart of Byrd Foods are worried. They fear nervous customers have lost their appetite for fresh tomatoes.

If they have, Virginia has a lot at stake. The fertile earth here has put the state on the tomato map. Last year, it supplied the nation with 183.1 million pounds of tomatoes. It's the country's fourth-largest producer, trailing only Florida, California and Georgia.

This week, restaurants and retailers such as McDonald's, Wendy's and Wal-Mart removed tomatoes from their menus and produce bins, making growers apprehensive. "Until . . . all these companies say, 'We're going to put these wedges back on our sandwiches and these tomatoes back on our shelves,' this won't be over," Stewart said, traversing his tomato fields earlier this week. "The damage is done."

What Stewart finds particularly alarming is that no one really understands how salmonella contaminates tomatoes. "People are getting sick," he said, "and nobody knows why."

That's why Virginia, along with Florida, joined the Tomato Safety Initiative. The FDA, as part of a larger effort to improve the nation's food safety systems, organized the initiative last year to learn how salmonella lives and spreads on farms and through produce.

The current outbreak illustrates the challenge. The FDA warned consumers last weekend that red Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes grown outside of certain areas might be contaminated with the bacteria. Food safety officials have been trying to find the source since the end of May, but they are still far from the answers.

Yesterday, David Acheson, FDA associate commissioner for food protection, acknowledged in a conference call with reporters that nine of the patients ill with salmonella had eaten at two restaurants that were part of the same chain. He declined to identify the chain or its location because the investigation is ongoing. An FDA spokesman said the restaurant was not the problem; the problem was the tomatoes.

He also said that because most of the tomatoes in the United States this time of year come from Florida and Mexico, the logical assumption makes one of those places the primary suspect. But which one or where? The FDA doesn't know and has not precluded investigating other regions.

"The key is not to react but to prevent," Acheson said this week. "The goal is to trace it back, if possible, to the farm where these tomatoes came from and try to figure out what went wrong and how it went wrong."

But it takes a great deal of detective work to trace a tomato back to the farm, and there is no guarantee it can be done. Yesterday, investigators were still visiting suppliers and going through distribution records, Acheson said.

"We have not sent investigators to any farms yet," he said, "because we don't know where to send them."


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