By Vicky Boyd, Editor

Hammered by a post-Salmonella malaise, the continuing recession and record-high energy inputs, the 2008-09 season is one that the Florida tomato industry might soon want to forget.

“Last year was one just one for the record book—one we hope will not repeat,” Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, told attendees Wednesday at the Florida Tomato Institute in Naples.

Florida growers harvested 47 million 25-pound boxes during the 2008-09 tomato season, which ended in June, compared with 45 million boxes in 2007-08.

Citing what he called “extremely adequate supplies,” Brown says growers received an average of $8.13 per 25-pound box last year. And for five weeks they received less than $5 per box.

The total crop value was $382 million compared to $616 million for the 2007-08 crop.

He blamed a hangover from the Salmonella Saintpaul food safety scare of spring 2008 for much of the poor grower prices last season.

During that outbreak, tomatoes were erroneously blamed for widespread food-borne illness. Eventually, hot peppers from Mexico were nabbed as the culprits, but not before the damage was done to the tomato industry.

Brown says he hopes a mandatory food safety program that both tomato growers and packers have to follow will help restore consumer and buyer confidence.

The 2008-09 season was the first year that growers and packers had to follow the practices, known as T-GAPs or tomato good agricultural practices. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services conducted audits and helped educate the industry about their deficiencies.

This season, the department will begin enforcing the regulations, says Shannon Shepp, director of the Division of Fruit and Vegetable Inspection in Winter Haven.

Inspections are expected to begin in October, when harvest begins and packinghouses begin running fruit.

Inspectors have an audit sheet that contains 13 different compliance categories, such as worker hygiene, and cleaning and sanitizing bulk bins and other containers. For an operation to pass, it must score 80 percent.

The department currently is drafting penalties, which will fall under major and minor categories, Shepp says.