Last week, Florida’s tomato industry gathered in Naples for the 36th Joint Tomato Conference. Nearly 400 people were in attendance and the two big issues on the agenda for the meeting were food safety and labor.
“We see the continued effort and commitment to food safety that is far beyond a simple audit, but it is the everyday 24/7 responsibility to look at and evaluate the risks and minimize those risks to produce the safest food for consumers,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange. “The other big issue on everybody’s mind, and I think it is universal to all specialty crop agriculture in the country, is the issue of immigration and E-Verify mandates that have the potential to grossly disrupt the supply of labor.”
Brown notes there is an estimated demand for up to 2 million workers in agriculture, so a mandatory E-Verify system without a viable alternative source to bring in labor could be a catastrophe for agriculture. He added that one of the most important messages he hoped tomato growers would leave the conference with was the critical importance of reaching out to local, state, and federal lawmakers to let them know how important a workable guestworker program is to speciality agriculture.
Brown added that Florida’s tomato industry continues to lead on the food safety front. Its food safety metric is viewed as model nationally and has positioned the state’s growers to be ahead of the game as new regulations come online from the Food Safety Modernization Act. The next big goal the industry has in its sights is a harmonized audit for food safety. Brown reports that progress has been made toward unified audit, and because of its proactive approach, the tomato industry is further along than other produce sectors.