(Feb. 20) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Food and Drug Administration wants domestic and foreign grower-shippers of lettuce and tomatoes to pay closer attention to food safety practices, but there remains some controversy why the agency chose to single out those commodities.

The FDA has posted on its Web site a letter to lettuce and tomato grower, shippers and handlers that it is advising a renewed commitment to good agricultural practices because of a number of recent outbreak investigations.

The letter, from Terry Troxell, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s office of plant and dairy foods, pointed out that, since 1996, the FDA had responded to 14 outbreaks of foodborne illness involving fresh lettuce or fresh tomatoes.

The letter is posted at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/prodltr.html.

“These outbreaks account for approximately 859 reported cases of illness,” he said in the letter. “The lettuce and fresh tomatoes associated with these outbreaks were of U.S. and non-U.S. origin; the causative agents included salmonella (fresh tomatoes), and E. coli O157:H7, cyclospora and hepatitis A virus (lettuce).”

The letter did not specify the point of origin of the products in question.

QUESTIONING FAIRNESS

Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs with the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, said Feb. 17 that it was unfair to highlight lettuce and tomatoes in such a way to make it appear they represented food with elevated risks. She emphasized there are no food safety outbreak associated with the commodities.

“We were kind of taken off guard,” Garren said, noting that the association has been working with its grower-shipper members to encourage compliance with good agricultural practices.

“We will not stand idly by when entire categories of safe and wholesome products are painted with a broad brush,” she said in a Feb. 16 e-mail to United members.

Kathryn Mattingly, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said the FDA letter concerning lettuce and tomatoes was not related to the MDP report, which was previewed and discussed at the USDA’s fruit and vegetable industry advisory meeting on Feb. 19-20.

Meanwhile, the FDA’s attention to lettuce and tomatoes appears to have been noted by some buyers.

“The issue has been brought up by one of our vendors,” said C. Craig Hartmann, safety manager for A. Duda & Sons, Oveido, Fla. “They are wanting to know more about our good management practices.”