Tomato season winds down with a whimper

These green tomatoes were just in from the field at Taylor & Fulton Packing in Palmetto on June 11. Many farmers had to watch helplessly as tomatoes ripened in idle packing factories amid a recent nationwide salmonella scare.

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These green tomatoes were just in from the field at Taylor & Fulton Packing in Palmetto on June 11. Many farmers had to watch helplessly as tomatoes ripened in idle packing factories amid a recent nationwide salmonella scare.

Local tomato producers are wrapping up a season destroyed by a nationwide salmonella outbreak that prompted grocery stores and restaurants to pull tomatoes from their shelves and menus.

As the "safe to eat" list of tomatoes grew last week to include parts of Central and North Florida, retailers restocked tomatoes. But producers say the economic impact in Florida still could exceed $500-million in lost product, lost sales and lost future business.

Brian Turner of Taylor & Fulton Packing in Palmetto says it will take years to make up the millions they lost. Crop insurance won't cover the losses because it only kicks in when there are natural disasters.

The Food and Drug Administration announced June 7 that raw red Roma, red plum and red round tomatoes were linked to a salmonella outbreak that to date has made more than 275 people in 28 states sick.

Tomatoes from Ruskin, Palmetto and Quincy were declared safe three days later — good news for consumers but too late for farmers, whose tomatoes ripened in idle packing factories over the weekend.

More than a dozen members of Congress from Florida sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach asking that his agency do a better job of telling consumers that Florida tomatoes are safe.

The letter notes that Florida is the nation's largest tomato producer.

The crop is worth $500-mil lion to $700-million.

Not all tomatoes in Florida have been cleared.

The FDA said on June 13 that the timing of the illnesses is leading them to believe that the tomatoes carrying the salmonella came from Mexico or parts of South Florida that are no longer shipping tomatoes.

Times writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Tomato season winds down with a whimper 06/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 1:50pm]

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