(Aug. 28, 11:53 a.m.) PLANT CITY, Fla. — As they were preparing to put their winter crops in the ground, Florida strawberry growers and shippers heard how to keep what happened to tomato growers from striking the strawberry industry.

At the Florida Strawberry Growers Association’s Aug. 26-27 Agritech 2008 meeting, growers learned what they can do to keep updated on food safety developments and heard updates on how legislative action in Washington, D.C., could affect their harvesting workforce.

Ted Campbell, the Dover-based association’s newly appointed executive director, said concerns about safety, food security and traceability along with availability and prices will remain the focus of today’s food system.

“We all watched in agony as tomatoes got crucified in the media,” Campbell said, referring to an outbreak of salmonella that the Food and Drug Administration, in part, blamed on tomatoes.

“And they had a pretty good safety and traceback process in place,” he said. “Unfortunately, their acquittal and execution was pretty low-key. That’s wrong. Now is the critical time to work with government, health regulators, buyers and the media on how such incidents are handled in the future. We have to be completely alert that what happened to the tomato people is possible.”

Walter Kates, director of the labor relations division of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, updated growers on immigration reform situation in Washington, D.C.

He noted proposed changes in the H-2A program involving housing could aid Florida growers.

Despite any potential positive reforms, the issue remains contentious, Kates said.

“I don’t care who is elected president,” he said. “We, in my opinion, won’t see any comprehensive reform legislation passed, at least for the first term. It has become such an emotional issue and is very divisive. A group over here wants the borders closed while the group that wants amnesty refuses to have any guest worker program. It’s just a real mess, aside from the emotional side of it.”

The 26th yearly conference attracted 315 participants, said Sue Harrell, the association’s director of marketing.

Strawberry growers gather for food safety updates
Gary Wishnatzki (left), president of Wishnatzki Farms, Plant City, Fla., talks with Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City, at the Florida Strawberry Growers Association's Agritech 2008 meeting. Growers at the annual conference held Aug. 26-27 heard what they should do to keep their strawberries from being linked to a food safety scare.