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Unfounded tomato scare still hits growers

Ed Angrisani has been in the tomato business for years, but even his relatives have been slow to realize that no links have been found between an outbreak of salmonella and Florida tomatoes.

For his July Fourth barbecue, Angrisani put out an enormous platter of sliced tomatoes, along with the hamburgers and hot dogs. Guess what was left over?

And while Burger King is once again putting tomatoes on its Whoppers, you still can't get them on Five Guys' burgers because of what one local manager called "a corporate decision."

"People haven't gotten the message that it's okay to eat tomatoes," said Angrisani, part-owner and sales manager of Taylor & Fulton Packaging in Palmetto. "Or they don't trust what the government says one way or another."

Nearly a month after federal health officials cleared Florida tomatoes as the source of a unique strain of salmonella, growers are still tallying up the cost.

"When you think about the people all the way up the line who lost money on this, you're talking billions," Angrisani said.

Nor does it help that authorities recently expanded their investigation to other kinds of produce commonly served with tomatoes, like the cilantro or jalapeno peppers in salsa.

The final straw might be word from the Food and Drug Administration that scientists may never be able to definitively track the source of an ongoing bacterial strain that has affected nearly 1,000 people in 40 states.

"You had a panicky situation that was never founded in fact," Angrisani said of the FDA's tomato warnings issued in early June. "We fight weather, hurricanes, hail and unfair foreign competition. Now we're fighting our own government."

Angrisani said his company lost millions of dollars from the late-season scare as buyers canceled orders or pushed for rock-bottom prices. Growers in Palmetto and Ruskin saw the price of a 25-pound box of tomatoes plummet from $16 to $8 or lower in a matter of days. At Taylor & Fulton, more than 200,000 boxes of tomatoes were simply left to rot on the vine.

"I couldn't sell them at any price," Angrisani said of the harvest, which was shut down about three weeks early.

Officials with the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defended the early consumer warnings, saying more than 80 percent of the people struck by salmonella reported eating fresh tomatoes. But when 1,700 samples from tomato fields and packing houses tested negative, authorities broadened their search to include the ingredients in fresh salsa, guacamole and pico de gallo. Though jalapeno peppers are reportedly of key concern, federal authorities declined to identify the items now being tested.

Florida's farmers are in the clear, however. None of the potential culprits are grown commercially in the state.

While the FDA and CDC chase other leads, Florida's tomato growers are wondering how long it will take for consumer demand to rebound. Angrisani's company has fields in Immokalee, where planting for the fall tomato harvest begins in about two weeks.

"We're sitting here with the land ready and the plastic ready," he said. "Now the question is, how much are we willing to put at risk this fall?"

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

FAST FACTS

The price of the tomato dustup

$16 Average price of a 25-pound box of Florida tomatoes on June 1

$8 or less Average price on June 15

Source: Taylor & Fulton Packaging

The harvest

Florida's tomato harvest (2006-2007): 1.3-billion pounds, or about half of all domestically produced fresh tomatoes consumed in the United States

Unfounded tomato scare still hits growers 07/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 7:45pm]
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