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Florida tomato growers get all-clear in health scare

Tomatoes grown in Ruskin, Palmetto and Quincy — near the Georgia border — were cleared of any link to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella on Tuesday, averting a costly crisis in the state's $500-million industry.

The FDA's "safe to eat" ruling was welcome news for people like Bob Spencer, sales manager of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, who spent Tuesday with his stomach in knots and thousands of dollars of tomatoes ripening rapidly beyond use in the fields and the warehouse.

On Monday, the FDA had advised consumers to avoid red round and Roma tomatoes, which make up the bulk of Florida's harvest, after identifying more than 150 cases of salmonella in 17 mostly Western states. Supermarkets and restaurants abruptly canceled orders and refused shipments. Florida's tomato industry came to a screeching halt.

When news came down late Tuesday that the FDA had cleared Florida's crop for sale, Spencer at West Coast Tomato was ready to spring into action. "We'll have trucks rolling out of here tomorrow," he said with relief.

Getting Florida's tomatoes approved for consumption prevented a massive financial meltdown in the industry, where costs mount quickly at harvest and time is of the essence. Growers have four to five days to pick, pack and ship green tomatoes before they become unusable. The state supplies 45 percent of all fresh tomatoes consumed in the United States year-round. During this time of year, Mexico is the other major supplier to U.S. markets, particularly in the West.

Charles Bronson, Florida's agriculture and consumer services commissioner, said he was confident that the state's crop was not to blame for the cases of salmonella, which were first detected in mid April.

"Florida tomato growers have one of the most stringent tomato production programs in the nation," he said.

Bronson said the tomatoes now being harvested and shipped from Florida did not even exist when the outbreak first occurred. There have also been no reported illnesses in Florida, where the state's growers sell an abundance of their crop. Although the FDA has not ruled out the possibility that tomatoes from other parts of Florida could be tied to the salmonella and is continuing that investigation, those areas are no longer producing and shipping tomatoes.

A spokeswoman for the state agricultural department said the FDA decided to clear the crop now being harvested based on tomato growers' safety initiatives as well as the timing of the illnesses. Growers will provide certification with each shipment, verifying the tomatoes were grown in Florida. The state becomes the 20th to be cleared by the FDA.

A spokeswoman for Publix said customers can expect to see Florida tomatoes back in its stores as early as today. But Jay Scott, a professor of horticulture with the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma, said tomato growers are not yet in the clear.

"They have to get consumer confidence back again and that's the big unknown," he said. "There will be inertia until things get going again."

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

Florida tomato growers get all-clear in health scare 06/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 11:39am]
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