Opinion: Florida Tomato Scare A Hard Lesson To Learn

In June, one of those worst-case scenarios happened to Florida tomato growers when cases of sickness due to Salmonella started to show up, and the FDA put certain types of raw red tomatoes on a watch list or basically a “do not buy” list. Unfortunately, these are the same tomatoes grown in Florida, and certain key counties were not put on the all-clear list. The result: The market was nearly cut in half, and many believe losses to the state’s growers will top out around $100 million.

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What could turn this worst-case scenario even more sour is if it turns out raw red tomatoes were not the source of the problem to begin with. As of press time, investigators were turning their attention to fresh jalapeños, serrano peppers, and cilantro — all ingredients one would find in fresh salsa with tomatoes. While the investigators looked for other sources of the outbreak, they contended that tomatoes were still strongly associated with the problem.

Calls For Compensation

Growers and ag officials are calling on some form of restitution due to huge losses resulting from the FDA’s handling of the outbreak. No question, if it turns out tomatoes were not the source of the outbreak, some form of compensation should be considered for those who lost money. But as this talk of restitution occurs, we have to be careful because of how complex a question we are confronting. At what point do we compromise human safety to protect sources of a potential food safety scare? In future outbreaks, if withholding information on the source of an outbreak to protect against missteps, like what occurred in this recent case, costs a life or more, then we’ve got a whole other set of problems to deal with. I certainly don’t claim to have the answers, but whatever those answers are, they must be measured and well thought out.

Tackling Trace-Back

I think one lesson we can take away from this latest food scare is the value of a more specific and detailed system of food labeling from the farm to the grocery store to assist in more accurate and rapid trace-back when outbreaks occur.  That gets a bit complicated when you figure how tomatoes are handled in packing and repacking, but it is an area worth addressing. Just imagine if the source of the current outbreak could have been identified in days rather than weeks — the damage to growers and the industry could have been much less. 

In situations like these, as bad as they are, lessons will be learned, and we will come away better prepared to handle future outbreaks.  And, we can’t forget that Florida’s tomato growers have one of the most stringent food safety programs in the country, which could serve as a model once the dust settles from this case.