(Nov. 6, 6:00 p.m.) BALM, Fla. — How Florida dealt with the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak made for a big discussion at the third yearly Florida Ag Expo.

Growers on Nov. 5 packed the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences’ Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in central Florida and heard how the industry responded and continues to work with health authorities during the summer crisis that implicated tomatoes.

Martha Roberts, a University of Florida consultant and former deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, presented an industry perspective on the outbreak that caused a documented $150 million in tomato sales losses.

She said industry and state officials helped work on committees through the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., that reworked commodity-specific food safety guidelines for fresh tomatoes in the supply chain.

Better relationships needed

Roberts said the industry needs to develop better relationships with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as local and state health departments and develop open, clear and rapid communications.

The federal agencies initially named tomatoes as the cause of the outbreak, later focusing on other items including hot peppers. Despite extensive testing, no tomatoes, packinghouses or other tomato facilities were found to have the Salmonella Saintpaul strain tied to the outbreak.

“The industry was commended by the FDA for its cooperation but they still won’t say we were in the right,” Roberts said. “The preponderance of evidence certainly shows us that it wasn’t tomatoes. Regrettably, the FDA and CDC … require irrefutable evidence to say tomatoes weren’t responsible.”

John Duval, technical services manager of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, asked about standardization of food safety audits as lawmakers develop new federal produce safety rules.

“With retailers requiring various third-party audits, with different food safety schemes, what will the outcome be with FDA also regulating us?” he asked. “As a producer and a grower, will we be regulated to death and end up with third-party audits from the government?”

Roberts said through United Fresh, the industry hopes the government will set standards for all of the audits. She said the industry was pleased that a major Florida-based supermarket chain plans to accept the state-mandated audit for the tomatoes it purchases. Roberts would not name the retailer.

With new rules that took effect in July, Florida became the first state requiring inspections for tomato growing and packing operations.

Industry perseverance

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, thanked growers for persevering in the tomato industry.

“This state and tomato industry have managed to get their role of leading the produce industry in the right order,” he said. “The industry is doing the right things and is in the right spot on food safety. We are having meaningful conversations with CDC. Quite privately, they admit it really wasn’t our problem. But we won’t ever get them to admit that. They are willing to address the issues in this outbreak and try to improve the situation going forward.”

Joanne Brown, agriculture department deputy commissioner for food safety, provided an outline on the salmonella scare. She discussed how the agency tried to persuade the FDA to put Florida tomatoes on a cleared list.

“It was a trying summer for everyone in Florida associated with tomatoes,” she said. “If we do find out that a Florida commodity is involved in a foodborne outbreak, we need to jump on it right away. Industry people and regulators need to work together and work on that traceback and try to identify the source as quickly as possible.”

The expo, which was presented by the tomato exchange, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association and the University of Florida, also featured talks on methyl bromide and possible alternative crop fumigants growers can use.

Florida Ag Expo: Focus on food safety
David Barnes (left), a Lakeland, Fla., salesman for Monte Package Co., Riverside, Mich., talks with Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover, Fla., at the third Florida Ag Expo Nov. 5 in Balm, Fla. Growers at the conference heard how Florida’s tomato industry dealt with the summer Salmonella Saintpaul tomato scare.