(July 23, 2:00 p.m.; UPDATED July 25, 1:10 p.m.) The produce industry will receive plenty of attention — and not necessarily the good kind — the week of July 28, when three congressional committees scrutinize food safety, traceability and the investigation of an ongoing outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul.

“Hopefully what will come out of this process is improvements in the system so we don’t have to ever go through this again in the produce industry, whether it’s tomatoes or something else,” said Reggie Brown, vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland. “It’s been a nightmare.”

Brown said he has been called as a witness in the July 31 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that will focus on the outbreak probe.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers cooperative, Fresno, also are expected to testify. A complete list of witnesses was not available.

The Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health departments have been investigating a Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak since late May, and the first reported illnesses began April 10.

More than 1,200 illnesses have been reported in 43 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
Officials initially linked the outbreak to tomatoes, and the FDA issued a nationwide consumer advisory for roma and red, round tomatoes June 7. That led retailers and restaurants to pull the implicated varieties.

As of July 21, FDA had not found a single positive test for Salmonella Saintpaul in the tomato supply chain despite a massive sampling effort, and the focus of the investigation has turned to jalapeño peppers.

FDA lifted its tomato advisory July 9, saying tomatoes in the supply chain should be safe to eat, but it has not eliminated tomatoes as a source of earlier illnesses.

“We think tomatoes should be exonerated,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., has introduced a House bill seeking nationwide compensation for tomato growers and packers. According to a news release from Mahoney, who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be responsible for issuing regulations and determining eligibility for compensation.

Industry groups, including United and Western Growers, have called for Congress to compensate growers for their losses. Brown said July 22 that tomato industry leaders still are calculating those losses.

FDA has faced widespread criticism from the national media and Congress for its inability to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak and likely will face more scrutiny from the subcommittee.

Brown said he doesn’t intend to pile on.

“The objective is to be constructive and try to make things better in the future,” he said. “We want to minimize the odds of something like this happening again.”

The July 31 hearing focused on the investigation of the outbreak is expected to follow a July 30 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture that will review the “legal and technical capacity for full traceability in fresh produce.”

United Fresh, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association and the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association have been working on a joint Produce Traceability Initiative since last fall.

That group is expected to finalize implementation dates for case-level traceability during an Aug. 27 meeting in Chicago.

Another hearing scheduled for July 30 by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture will scrutinize food safety in the produce industry.