NAPLES, Fla. — Recovering from a disastrous year marked by a salmonella scare that brought low demand and historically low prices, Florida’s tomato growers tackled the food safety issue and have changed their season’s marketing plans.

Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Florida Tomato Committee, discussed a promotion involving consumer retail produce department market research during the 34th yearly Joint Tomato Conference, Sept. 8-11.

Florida tomato industry alters promotional programs

Doug Ohlemeier

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., from left, talks with Mike Aerts, director of the marketing and membership division for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, at the Florida Joint Tomato Conference in Naples. At the yearly convention, which attracts people from throughout the tomato industry, participants heard about how disappointing demand crippled last season’s prices.

A $538,000 specialty crop block grant, which the committee received word of receiving on Sept. 10, will help fund intensive category management research into what motivates consumers to purchase tomatoes.

 â€œThe effect on the consumer is devastating,” Winters said. “The consumer is a completely different person from six months or a year ago. We are dealing with a completely different animal, and their purchase motivators are different. We will be able to do certain things in the marketplace, and then have the data to look at to see if we did impact sales and did the right thing to go to market.”

The committee plans to employ a retail merchandising team and conduct regular foodservice promotions that involve a student culinary chef contest.

In other business at the conference, Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers, Fresno, which has worked with Florida to develop food safety standards, said California tomato sales fell 50% during the 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul crisis. He said sales have recovered by 25% and that California’s sales are up from 2007.

“What we have to look at, as we come out of this salmonella hangover, how are we going to gather our success stories and leverage them for the future?” he asked. “Retailers won’t put tomatoes back on the store shelves unless we work for them. We also won’t get control of costs unless we deal with these other issues attacking our industry, whether it be food safety, sustainability or stewardship.”

Tomato leaders also honored the retiring Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of the Lipman Family Cos., Immokalee, which owns Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. and Custom Pak, and Stephen Madonia Sr., who oversees growing operations for East Coast Growers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, Fla., for their industry service and work on the industry’s boards.

The resolutions said Lipman’s and Madonia’s contributions benefited the entire tomato industry.

The conference, sponsored by the Maitland-based committee and Florida Tomato Exchange, attracted more than 450 attendees, up from the 350 that attended last year.