Tomato growers respond to Salmonella outbreak with plans that promote food safety

The tomato industry has been left defending itself against false accusations and worried consumers, following the Salmonella seratype Saintpaul outbreaks this summer. The outbreaks reinforced the need for growers to follow best management practices and guidelines to ensure an actual outbreak doesn't occur in tomatoes.

Tomato growers in Florida and California already had in place mandatory best management practices and good agricultural practices before the food safety scare. Add the second edition of national standards—"Commodity-specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Tomato Supply Chain," released Aug. 12—and a foundation is in place for tomato growers to be better prepared for the next foodborne illness outbreak.

Testimony before Congress

Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers cooperative, and Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, testified at the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing July 31 to express support for nationwide food safety legislation modeled after the two groups' mandatory programs.

"The Florida and California programs have been cited as models for the industry," Beckman said in a joint news release. "We believe that what we have learned over the past two years during program implementation can be used to develop responsible regulation on a nationwide basis.

"This would not only promote food safety to protect public health but also level the playing field among all tomato producers so that we are all working under the same regulatory framework."

Both programs have established food safety guidelines for farmers and handlers, and stringent field verification audits by inspectors from their state departments of agriculture.

Packing facilities are subject to random and unannounced government inspections, which include verifying their ability to conduct tracebacks of their products, according to the news release. The traceback requirements mandated under the Florida and California programs exceed current federal requirements under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 as well as current California state regulations, according to the release.

Safety in the Sunshine State

 The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange worked with growers, the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services, and the FDA to develop tomato GAPs and BMPs, established September 2006.Florida's food safety regulations too effect July 1.

The California Tomato Farmers cooperative was established in 2006 and began its inspection programs last year. The cooperative developed "The Fresh Standard" for food safety, which is a list of requirements and guidelines based on scientific research and previous good agricultural practices established in 1999, according to its Web site.

During the past nine years, the California tomato industry and the California Tomato Commission conducted food safety research through the University of California, Davis. The industry has revised its standards accordingly. The group also has created an advisory panel of government agencies, customers, university scientists and farm labor advocates, according to the site.

Together, the Florida and California organizations represent 70 percent of the nation's fresh tomato supply.

Push for mandatory national BMPs

Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the North America Tomato Trade Working Group released the second edition of the "Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Tomatoes Supply Chain," which provides comprehensive recommendations for the entire North American tomato industry from field to fork. Components include water, soil and workers.

"It is our desire that the FDA make the [commodity-specific guidelines] regulatory," Beckman says.

 Jeff Dolan, field operations manager for DiMare Newman in Newman, Calif., says the company received the document this summer and has been trying to implement the suggestions.

What happened?

Although several types of tomatoes were initially implicated in this summer's foodborne illness scare, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually linked the outbreak to jalapeño and serrano peppers grown, harvested or packed in Mexico.As a result, tomato growers lost $120 million to $130 million, and consumer demand for tomatoes decreased by 20 percent to 30 percent, Brown says.

More than 1,400 people have been infected with Salmonella seratype Saintpaul in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada, according to the CDC. The FDA and the CDC didn't lift their tomato warning until July 17.

Florida and California lead the charge

Florida is the only state in the country with mandatory tomato good agricultural practices and tomato best management practices. The California Tomato Farmers co-op also require members,who represent 80 percent of the state's tomato growers, to follow mandatory BMPs.

During fall 2007, the field-packing provision of the Florida program began. This fall, official state audits will begin. More than 90 percent of Florida tomato growers have adopted the GAPs and BMPs, Brown says.

The California Tomato Farmers BMPs also require audits. Inspectors with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, as well as independent auditors,will conduct the inspections, Dolan says.

"There are 250 items to look at on each field," he says. "Everything from field sanitation facilities to environmental assessment to pick a field to grow on, which includes land use history, flooding, adjacent land usage. Is the field next to a dairy or feed lot?"

Also among the field-related items the audit covers are soil amendments, pesticides, irrigation water quality, employee and harvest crew practices, education and training, and traceback programs, according to the California Tomato Farmers Web site.

As of July 1, the Florida audits require that tomato growers not use corrugated boxes in the field, Brown says. The Florida Tomato Exchange is working with IFAS to educate growers about the issue.

Instead, growers will need to use tote buckets or other reusable plastic containers to ship tomatoes to the packinghouse.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc. in Palmetto, Fla., says the company's done away with harvesting in direct-to-sale boxes and now uses plastic trays or bins.

Dolan says this is the case in California as well, and all tomatoes must be packed in new or sanitized RPCs.

The importance of personal hygiene in the field is something that has been emphasized through the current BMPs, he says.

"Like your mother always said, 'wash your hands every time you go to the bathroom,' Dolan says.

DiMare provides refresher training about hygiene monthly and every time a new worker is hired.

"I grow tomatoes I'm comfortable for my 4-year-old daughter to eat right out of the field," Dolan says.

Spencer agrees, saying everyone in the field and the packinghouse at West Coast Tomato now wears gloves.

John Lupul, president of JPL Sales in Stockton, Calif., represents California Tomato Farmers members in the market. He says portable toilets are placed outside of the field area and cleaned daily. Workers are offered soap, water, hand sanitizer and one-use towels.

West Coast Tomato also uses a fail-safe monitoring system on its water flume to ensure the correct level of chlorine is used, through which the tomatoes are transported, Spencer says.All chemicals used to clean packing machines must not contain caustic chemicals that would have a chance to get on tomatoes.

In addition,West Coast Tomato has established systems for monitoring pests and fertilizer, he says.

Lupul says the growers he represents have hired an independent testing company to monitor irrigation water quality two to three times a season, beginning with each crop cycle.

West Coast Tomato has focused on continuing education for its employees, Spencer says.

"In the last five to 10 years, we've had to reeducate everybody," he says. "It's a whole new lifestyle."

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United Fresh: Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Tomatoes Supply Chain

Florida GAPs and BMPs

California Tomato Farmers BMPs