EAST MANATEE — Myakka City farmer Ben King figures he lost between $120,000 and $150,000 in lost tomato sales when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory after an outbreak of salmonella.
Watching the red globes rotting on their vines was disturbing enough for King, but waiting while the salmonella investigation drags on is equally tough.
On Saturday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it had cleared tomatoes in 28 of 31 Mexican states from suspicion, according to the Associated Press.
The FDA now appears to be narrowing its investigation into the outbreak, which has sickened more than 550 people, to some counties in Florida and three Mexican states: Jalisco, Coahuila and Sinaloa.
The decision represents ''important progress'' and was the result of ''a day of intense negotiations between (Mexican) federal authorities and the FDA,'' Mexico's Agriculture Department said in a news statement.
Mexico's tomato exports, a big source of income for farmers, were all but halted by the salmonella outbreak, which began in April.
On the paper trail
Some cases are still being reported. U.S. warnings against consuming Mexican tomatoes caused resentment there. Mexican officials said they will continue to work to prove that the salmonella detected in the United States did not originate in their country.
The FDA inspection in Mexico is now looking at some distributors who were handling tomatoes in the western state of Jalisco and the northern state of Coahuila when the outbreak occurred.
''However, there is no evidence at this time that they were related'' to the outbreak, according to the statement.
While Sinaloa is Mexico's most important tomato-growing state and remains on the warning list, it has ended its tomato-growing season for the year.
FDA investigators have been tracking where those stricken with salmonella said they bought or ate tomatoes, and where the retailers or restaurants in turn bought them.
They have zeroed in on a list of farms in Florida and Mexico that seem to have contributed at least partly to the supply, plus records showing the packinghouses and other distribution stops between the farms and markets.
FDA inspectors will be involved in reviews of the suspected sites.
Like other Florida farmers, King is listening to the rumors and wondering.
"I honestly can't tell you," King said Sunday when asked what he thought could have caused the outbreak and where it will finally be traced to. "There are several schools of thought. A lot of local farmers think it comes from Mexican tomatoes."
King said that Mexican facilities don't have the same consistency of safety standards as U.S. facilities. Some facilities have good safety standards, but some of them may not, King said.
It is thought that salmonella is caused by an unsanitary handling of the tomato.
"This is why we believe that country of origin labeling is important," King said. "We go out of our way to say our food is safe. This was caused by an unsanitary condition. Who knows how it happened? Maybe the outbreak will be traced to a slicing facility where they slice tomatoes for fast-food restaurants."
What really bothers King is that he and many other Florida farmers get inspected by independent firms whose standards are tougher than state or federal guidelines, King said.
Buyers like Publix and Albertsons demand it, King added.
In King's case, it is Davis Fresh out of California, which goes over his farm with a fine tooth comb.
What saved King is that he is diversified. Besides tomatoes, he grows blueberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber and a form of "heirloom" tomato that is not a hybrid.
He is a small grower in the tomato industry with just 40 acres of tomato fields in Myakka City, which produced 40,000 boxes of regular round tomatoes and Romas.
"I am absolutely the smallest," King said.
There were 20,000 more tomatoes that he left on the vine because his packinghouse told him that the FDA had pulled the plug on Florida tomatoes due to the salmonella.
"They told me, 'Stop picking. There is no movement. Our rooms are full. We are dead in the water,' " said King, whose grandfather is Jack Taylor, who started the Palmetto packinghouse and farm known as Taylor & Fulton. His uncle is Jay Taylor, formerly of Taylor & Fulton.
"I'm diversified but the big guys lost an amazing amount," King said.