Natural Foods Merchandiser

Recompense for tomatoes' rotten rap?

by Shara Rutberg

Though peppers are now in the hot seat as suspects for the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 1,270 people, tomato growers and packers are still feeling the financial sting of what has been the equivalent of a produce perp walk.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Florida, introduced a bill last Wednesday that would compensate growers and packers with $100 million for losses incurred during The Great Tomato Scare of 2008. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would decide who qualifies, in a process similar that of disaster assistance. The bill was cosponsored by U.S Reps. Allen Boyd, D-Florida, Adam Putnam, D-Florida, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Florida, and Vern Buchanan, R-Florida.

On June 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against eating certain types of raw tomatoes suspected of harboring the Saintpaul strain of salmonella. Many restaurants and consumers avoided them. The FDA has since lifted its warning, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet ruled out the possibility that tomatoes caused earlier cases of salmonella even though both agencies announced last week the discovery of a single jalapeƱo tainted with the Saintpaul strain.

"The FDA's warnings about tomatoes devastated the $1.3 billion tomato industry," Mahoney said in a press release. "Due to the timing of the salmonella outbreak, Florida was hit hard. We need to ensure that all impacted tomato growers and packers are compensated for their losses to protect domestic food production. With unfortunate events like this, Americans are becoming aware that food safety and national security are synonymous. We clearly need to examine and overhaul our food safety system to ensure that the food we grow and import is safe."

"The tomato industry in our state has unfairly suffered enough," Schultz said in a press release. "The FDA must reform their trace-back programs so that growers and consumer do not have to go through the same nightmare during future outbreaks."

Last year, spinach growers pushed a similar bill to compensate spinach packers and growers affected after the government recalled fresh spinach after an E. coli outbreak. The effort failed.

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