PALMETTO — Florida's tomato scare may be over for consumers, but the nightmare is just beginning for the state's growers. Stuck for days with tons of tomatoes shunned by retailers and shoppers, Florida's producers say the economic impact of this week's salmonella scare ultimately could reach more than $500-million in lost product, lost sales and lost future business.
And if that's not tough enough: The loss will not be covered by crop insurance, which kicks in when there are natural disasters.
Brian Turner, vice president of Taylor & Fulton Packaging in Palmetto, said a hurricane or freeze would have been better than waiting to be placed on the Food and Drug Administration's "safe to eat" list.
On Saturday, the FDA advised against eating red round and Roma tomatoes from Florida and other states after an outbreak of salmonella affected more than 150 people in 17 states. The FDA is still investigating the source of the outbreak, which was concentrated in Western states.
"Insurance doesn't protect you from somebody leaving you off a list," said Turner, whose workers were busy sorting green tomatoes tumbling down a conveyor belt Wednesday afternoon.
The scene at Taylor & Fulton was repeated throughout packinghouses in Palmetto, Ruskin and Quincy in North Florida on Wednesday as growers desperately tried to salvage the season. To ship tomatoes, growers have to certify the crop was grown in one of 19 counties and harvested after May 1. The new requirement added another layer of paperwork and state inspection to growers' processes.
Bob Spencer, sales manager of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, said his staff was busy matching field tickets to boxed tomatoes to verify the crop was safe. Buyers, meanwhile, were dealing with a backlog of inventory and trying to gauge consumer demand before placing new orders.
"It will take 36 to 72 hours to figure out how the public will react to this," Spencer said. "And it will take a while for Burger King and Subway to get tomatoes back into their systems."
Spencer and other growers said they were still trying to put a number on their losses, though an industry association estimated it would be more than 10 times earlier projections.
"I probably have a half-million boxes at the other end that might not get paid for," said Spencer, whose company usually ships 4.5-million 25-pound boxes each year. "If this were to happen another time, where overnight we had nowhere to sell our product, it might be enough to force people out of business."
The FDA's warning system was criticized by several growers, who said it leads to overreactions on the part of both retailers and consumers. The salmonella outbreak that led to the ban on Florida's tomatoes began in mid April, before the crop that is now being harvested was being widely distributed. And though much of Florida's crop is distributed in-state, not a single case of the strain of salmonella that is of concern has been diagnosed in Florida.
"We want to have some serious discussions with the FDA when we're through this crisis," Spencer said. "We've got to make a decision about how much money we're going to put in the ground (in crops) next year."
At Taylor & Fulton, president Jim Grainger said the company would plant the same size crop next year, despite fear that a food scare could happen again.
"The one thing about farmers is, they're resilient," Grainger said. "If you sit here and just dwell on it, it will eat you up."
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