By Doug Ohlemeier

Eastern Editor for The Packer

NAPLES, Fla. — Ahead of the start of their season, Florida tomato grower-shippers plan to strengthen the safety of shipments and renew national cable television advertisements.

Because some illnesses from foodborne outbreaks have involved cut, sliced and diced tomatoes, shippers in the largest tomato-producing state are advancing an industry-led plan to tighten food safety procedures.

The plan, which will include good agricultural practices and best management practices, was announced at the 31st Joint Tomato Conference on Sept. 5-7. The Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee, the Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange sponsor the conference.

The industry is working with the Food and Drug Administration, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and university scientists to prevent future outbreaks involving tomatoes.

The trade group was formulating the plan in early September. It plans to begin full implementation and enforcement of the voluntary plan during the fall of 2007, said Reggie Brown, exchange executive vice president and committee manager.

Committee vice chairman Jay Taylor, president of Taylor & Fulton Inc., Palmetto, said the initiative is critical.

“If you look at what the FDA is doing with lettuce (in California), we know stricter guidelines from the government is coming not only on tomatoes but with other field-grown varieties as well as hothouse-grown tomatoes,” he said.

The tomato channel:

For the second year, the committee will advertise its tomatoes on cable TV food network programs. The ads, which could cost up to $1 million, will be the same commercials the committee ran last year. This time, they will air over six weeks, compared to last year’s eight-week program, said Samantha Winters, the marketing order’s director of education and promotion.

Instead of the commercials running for two four-week flights, the committee this season plans to run three flights of commercials that will air on cable food network and home and garden channels for two weeks at a time, Winters said. The expanded marketing message window will allow more opportunities for retail promotional tie-ins, she said.

The commercials will start in early January.

State of the tomato:

In his yearly state of the Florida tomato industry talk, Brown told attendees he was glad to see many of them back at the convention and surviving in business for another year after a disastrous 2005-06 season.

The industry didn’t experience as much price volatility as it experienced during the previous season, he said.

Growers will also battle a growing whitefly pest problem.

The pest this summer was identified in five counties ranging from Dade and Lee counties in the south part of the state to Hillsborough and Orange counties in the central and Suwannee County in the north. Brown said it’s only a matter of time before growers throughout the state have to begin managing the pest, which carries the tomato yellow leaf curl virus.

The industry is working with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to require burning of infected crops to prevent spread to neighboring fields, Brown said.