Tomato Growers Seeing Red

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By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

While throwing a few rotten tomatoes at U.S. regulators might help ease growers' pain, those involved in the latest salmonella epidemic would prefer cash for their trouble.

After weeks of implicating domestic tomatoes in an outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul, federal food-safety sleuths shifted the spotlight to jalapeño and serrano peppers grown in Mexico.

But before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted the tomato advisory July 17, U.S. tomato growers were left holding the shopping bag.

Growers said they 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 after the FDA told people to stop eating tomatoes and the illnesses 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 tests didn't turn up a single domestic tomato with the bacteria.

The late reprieve for the industry shows how difficult it is to conduct international investigations of food-borne illnesses with limited resources and imperfect ways to trace a product back to its source.

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

Holding a tomato in one hand and a jalapeño in the other, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee, pressed the FDA on whether the tomato was still a "vegetable of interest" or had been cleared.

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 were safe to eat.

The FDA said it followed the leads provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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.


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