Tomato Scare Costs Industry Millions

Bob Spencer and other Florida growers were so angry this morning, they wanted to throw their tomatoes at government regulators.

The Food and Drug Administration has still not pinpointed where salmonella-contaminated tomatoes that sickened 167 consumers came from, but late today, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson finally announced that Florida-grown tomatoes are free from the salmonella scare.

"We are being punished. We are losing our markets and losing millions and millions and millions of dollars," Spencer said. "We're angry that it's taken this long. We have been asking [the FDA] to reach a speedy conclusion."

Trucks were turned back, warehouses were full and 75 million pounds of tomatoes -- $40 million worth -- were at the risk of rotting because they couldn't be released for sale.

In an unusual show of openness, the head of the FDA allowed reporters into one of the labs testing tomatoes. FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach did a demonstration for the reporters and said that washing the tomato at home "is not necessarily going to be a complete safeguard."

Salmonella bacteria, found in animal feces, can enter a tomato through cuts, the stem base or during the washing process.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the devastating effects the spinach industry suffered during a recall in 2006, the FDA tried to narrow the warning about tomatoes to specific types believed to be affected, but it may have confused consumers when it said to avoid red, round, Roma and plum tomatoes.

"The way the FDA is handling this current outbreak is because they can't tell you exactly where the product came from," Sarah Klein, of the Center for Science in Public Interest, said. "They're going to tell you everywhere it didn't come from. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead of holding up the needle, you're holding up each piece of the hay and saying, 'This is not the needle.' That's not very helpful for consumers."

The FDA is having trouble tracing back the contaminated tomatoes because, unlike other food products that have dates of manufacture or labels, nothing is required on our fresh fruit and vegetables.

Dr. David Acheson, of FDA Food Safety, said the FDA needs to figure out a system to respond more quickly and improve its ability to trace tomatoes.

"We need to fix this. We need to establish tracing systems," he said. "I think one of the questions is, 'should we require a law to do this?' We don't want to require a law until we exactly know what we want people to do -- what's a system that is practical and works for tomatoes?"

But the FDA has no plan for a tracing system. Late today, however, it cleared parts of Florida to ship tomatoes, which Spencer and other growers will be picking up in the morning.

"We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. It's time for a resolution of this matter," he said.