(Sept. 4, UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:32 p.m.)

NAPLES, Fla. — More than a month after Florida’s tomatoes were cleared as safe by the Food and Drug Administration’s investigation into a salmonella outbreak, concerns about how to keep what happened to them from happening to others dominated discussions at the Joint Tomato Conference.

Tomato leaders at the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Committee-sponsored meetings Sept. 2-7 also heard about a new promotional program to help restore consumer confidence in their tomatoes.

Until the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak in early June, the industry experienced what Reggie Brown, exchange vice president and committee manager described as an excellent season that saw a strong $15-17 tomato market.

Brown, in his “state of the tomato industry report,” said food safety regulations pioneered by Florida growers moving through Congress will likely mandate national safety regulation of tomatoes.

“We will be working to restore public confidence in tomatoes,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. What we need to do is level up the table and get everyone on the same kinds of programs we’re on. It will reduce the probability of having problems.”

Despite the lack of a single tomato with a positive test in the outbreak, growers, shippers, marketers and others with a stake in the industry lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even so, Brown said, the industry is working “diligently” with the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA.

“I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but the reality is they still hold the cards,” he said. “No one in the produce industry should ever go through the experiences we went through in last 90 days without making some significant progress in how we work in the future to avoid what was done to us this year.”

Celebrity chefs

Samantha Winters, the committee’s director of education and promotion, unveiled a promotional program that features a tomato culinary art tour and contest and a public relations campaign featuring local celebrity chefs and contest winners to try to restore consumer confidence in tomatoes through sampling, exhibitions and local publicity by showing consumers how Florida growers work to ensure the safety of the tomatoes they grow.

The art tour campaign, which kicks off Oct. 1 with a tomato art contest, will stop in New York; Philadelphia; Boston; Baltimore; Portland, Maine; Albany, N.Y.; Richmond, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Atlanta; Miami; Orlando, Fla.; Tampa, Fla.; and Jacksonville, Fla. It features tie-ins with area retailers and foodservice operators.

“We want to generate consumer awareness and trial (of tomatoes) and increase awareness of our product in an unexpected way,” Winters said. “We want to focus on markets that have the most potential for Florida tomatoes. Historically, they have been supportive of us. Want to get back in the neighborhoods and partner with strategic retailers in key markets to generate increased display activity and consumer and retailer involvement.”

John Himmelberg, the Tomato Exchange’s legal counsel and lobbyist, said one of his highest priorities is securing compensation for growers. He said he helped draft a compensation bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-West Palm Beach.

He asked growers to contact their congressional representatives and urge them to sign onto the bill.

“If you don’t do it and we don’t get that kind of support from our own people, we will have a tough time getting it through Congress,” Himmelberg said.

In a food safety session, Martha Roberts, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences consultant and former deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the tomato industry is working with federal authorities to improve response during foodborne illness outbreaks.

“What happens when their original hypothesis is wrong?,” she asked. “What we want to do is to start working rapidly with the report of any foodborne illness outbreak to keep the economic impact much less. It is critical that we review all the facts in this outbreak with FDA and CDC and set down and do a post-mortem to try find out what could be done better, how to improve the process and to start allowing industry to give some assistance to the FDA.”

During packinghouse managers and grower workshops, food safety authorities provided instruction on how to undergo extensive packinghouse and on-farm audits.

Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, said he expects a difficult year.

“It’s going to be a scary season,” he said. “Costs are up 25%. And demand after the salmonella situation is still down.”

Tomato leaders honored Lipman, the outgoing Florida Tomato Growers Exchange president, outgoing tomato committee chairman James Grainger, owner of Grainger Farms and co-owner of Tomatoes of Ruskin Inc., Ruskin, and outgoing exchange president Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, for their service to the industry 2006-08.

Tomato growers recall outbreak, talk strategy
Reggie Brown, Florida Tomato Exchange executive vice president (left), honors Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, and outgoing president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, for his two years of leading the trade group. Lipman received the honor at the 33rd Joint Tomato Conference Sept. 4 in Naples, Fla.