The 2008 season is one to forget for most California tomato grower-shippers. Thousands of pounds of a bumper crop never made it to salads, sandwiches and dining tables because the Food and Drug Administration incorrectly linked red tomatoes to a salmonella outbreak.
Once tomatoes were found to be not guilty, California retailers and shoppers could have helped the grower-shippers’ cause by stocking up and buying the fruit, said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, Fresno.
“Tons of tomatoes came flying off the shelves, but retailers were slow to put them back on,” he said.
Buy local and Buy California campaigns also seemed to have minimal effect, he said.
“We don’t seem to find the degree of interest in buy local and Buy California as those kinds of campaigns do in smaller states,” he said.
Part of the problem may be a lack of knowledge among consumers, said Maile Shanahan Geis, executive director of the Buy California Marketing Agreement.
“One of the biggest challenges for consumers is not knowing what commodities are grown in California,” she said.
Using the California Grown logo to identify produce is an easy way to remind shoppers, she suggested. She pointed to the kiwifruit industry, which Shanahan Geis said has been successful in putting the logo on Price Look-Up stickers.
“It’s on the small side, but it shows up,” she said.
Educating shoppers is a task suppliers must share with retailers, said David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif.
“We should do our part to identify ourselves as local suppliers and to come at the retailers with that being a part of our marketing plans,” he said.
There are signs California shoppers support the state’s growers. Research by the Buy California Marketing Agreement and California State University, Sacramento, found sales of locally grown fruits and vegetables increased 7.1% from 2001 to 2004, Shanahan Geis said.
“That translated to a sales increase of $897 million,” she said.
The research project also compared produce sales between stores displaying California Grown point-of-sale signs with stores that did not identify produce grown in the state. Sales in the stores with signs were incrementally higher, Shanahan Geis said.
California’s budget woes have precluded research projects since 2004, she said.
The bitter taste of 2008 remains tough for some grower-shippers to forget, especially when they are reminded frequently that some retailers are not committed to California-grown produce.
“It’s upsetting to walk into the grocery store across the street from my packinghouse and not see California tomatoes in the produce department,” said Jeff Dolan, field operations manager for DiMare Newman, Newman, Calif.