PALMETTO, Fla. — Florida tomato growers and packers remain on the forefront of food safety practices.

To help assure the tomatoes they ship remain free of contamination, Florida tomato industry leaders in 2008 persuaded state lawmakers to institute state-mandated food safety practices and laws.

Food safety key focus for Florida tomato industryThe industry and state regulatory officials developed T-GAPs and T-BMPS for the good agricultural practices and best management practices for Florida’s tomato industry.

The rules, which became law in 2008, require rigorous state inspections of tomato fields and packinghouses.

“Our industry has made a tremendous investment in that process of ensuring that we have done everything we can to provide a safe and healthy product for our consumer,” said Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc.

“It’s an everyday process that you are constantly watching every part of the food production system to see how you can make sure that you keep food safety a priority.”

Safety systems
Spencer said most people don’t understand how the produce industry has changed and improved its production practices from field to marketplace to minimize risk.

Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for the Immokalee-based Lipman, participated in a panel discussion about coming Food Safety Modernization Act regulations during the Nov. 9 Florida Ag Expo at the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences’ Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.

Odell joined Ryan Harrolle, global quality assurance and food safety auditor for Tampa-based OSI Restaurant Partners LLC, which owns the Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s restaurant chains, in asking Leanne Skelton, senior policy analyst with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, how the recently passed regulations would affect produce.
Odell said growers remain committed to making their product as safe as they can.

“A secondary concern is not so much the cost of any one particular program, but we have so many agencies and private sector entities asking us for different things to assure our product meets their particular standards,” Odell said.

“A main concern for us on food safety is cost. We are adding a lot more costs to our operations due to having to create a lot of documentation.”

Lingering reputation
Referencing the 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that sickened hundreds, Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, asked when tomatoes were last blamed for a illness outbreak.

“We still have people today that are very hesitant to eat tomatoes,” he said.
“The way we process our product these days, we have an extremely safe product. The only blemish we have on our product was put there by a federal agency that not only was incorrect, but would not change and retract the statement when they knew they were incorrect.”

Florida growers are ahead of the curve in instituting mandatory food safety requirements, said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers.

“Think about how quickly we (the industry) made the change,” he said.
“It didn’t happen over a 10-year period. Florida growers are right there.”

Weisinger said everyone he buys for and sells to wants third-party certification.

“In this litigious society, if you don’t protect yourself, you end up falling under the wheels of a bus,” Weisinger said.

Full effect
The entire produce industry suffers during outbreaks, said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead.

“Regardless of the commodity, any time there’s an outbreak, as far as I’m concerned, it affects the entire produce industry,” he said.

“I cringe when I see outbreaks related to fresh produce. It casts doubt in the eyes of consumers who don’t understand our business, the complications involved in bringing them the products they’re buying. I know the outbreaks wrongly point fault at the overall industry.”