Tomatoes being harvested in the Tampa Bay area and North Florida have been declared safe to eat by the FDA. But the state is not in the clear in the ongoing search for the cause of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella.
Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, said Friday the timing of the illnesses, first noted April 10, means the agency's tracking will eventually lead to one of two locations: Mexico or parts of South Florida that are no longer shipping tomatoes.
"The vast majority of tomatoes in national distribution at that time were being produced in one of these two places,'' Acheson said. "It's extremely unlikely that the same genetic fingerprint (of the particular strain of salmonella) would be found in two places at one time, so it likely came from a single geographic region."
Acheson stressed that plenty of safe tomatoes are in stores for consumers.
"But consumers see 'salmonella and tomatoes' and they don't want to go there," he said. "We know big aspects of the industry are taking a hit."
Florida growers in Ruskin, Palmetto and Quincy got the green light to resume shipping late Tuesday. But they predict several days of lost production, and a loss of consumer confidence could translate into a financial hit of more than $500-million. That's the equivalent of a year's revenues for the state's crop, which produces nearly half the fresh tomatoes consumed in the United States year-round and more than 90 percent of the nation's tomatoes in May and early June.
Florida's Agriculture Department has been issuing certificates with each shipment of tomatoes declaring they were picked and packed in one of the 19 FDA-approved counties. The department is urging growers to plaster their shipments with a "Fresh from Florida" label to reassure consumers.
Nearly 4-million 25-pound cartons have been certified, but Bob Spencer, co-owner and sales manager of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, said buyers are scarce.
"They're waiting to see when the public comes back to the stores in a big way before they start reordering," he said. "Bad news moves at the speed of sound. Good news moves on the back of a snail."
Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996.