NAPLES, Fla. — Food safety and immigration reform issues dominated the 36th Joint Tomato Conference.

During an annual state of the tomato industry talk and in meetings with growers and packers, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, outlined issues challenging the industry.

He said growers need to tell their elected representatives how they feel about pending E-Verify and guest worker legislation in Congress and how the industry needs a work force to continue to produce food “for America in America by Americans” working in the agricultural sector.

Brown decried the Food Safety Modernization Act’s exemption of small farm safety requirements.

“We certainly do not believe there should be exemptions, exclusions or variations on food safety standards regardless of farm size,” he said. “There are some real challenges out there in the political arena in that the small farm agenda worked its way into Food Safety Modernization Act.

“It is being aggressively carried out by small farm interests,” he said “We are engaging to ensure that an appropriate and adequate risk- and science-based education program is structured for that portion of the production arena as well.”

Brown also said the tomato industry has made progress toward a unified food safety auditing system. He said the industry is working with the United Fresh Produce Association and other groups to harmonize audits.

Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, Fresno, gave an overview of conditions in the West Coast tomato industry and discussed defending the industry’s safety practices.    

He said the tomato industry has made large strides on the issue and remains “the benchmark for a number of other commodities.” The challenge, he said, is once an industry establishes a standard, some want to challenge it.

“Some buyers have a laundry list of items that are their own personal agenda they’d like to have become your agenda,” he said. “We either have a dialogue based on science or go down the path so many other commodities go down, and have rider upon rider.

“It comes down to establishing your benchmark and protecting it,” Beckman said. “Because once science is not the basis for food safety, we are then on a treadmill. It’s a very expensive treadmill and could very well limit how well we grow tomatoes.”

During the 2010-11 season, which ended in June, Florida tomato growers packed 36.1 million 25-pound equivalent cartons of mature green tomatoes, up from the 27.9 million they packed in 2009-10 but significantly lower than the 50-million-carton annual average during the past decade, Brown said.

The $431 million crop is higher than $402 million production last year, and comes after Mexico’s season. Field tomato shipments from there declined 29%, a year after Mexico filled volume gaps caused by Florida freezes, Brown said.

The Sept. 6-9 event, which also included grower-oriented food safety, production and agronomic sessions, saw strong attendance. Organizers say around 375 participated, similar to the last year’s attendance.