The 2007-2008 tomato season resulted in several very positive steps toward a sound future for tomato producers in Florida, including but not limited to the following:
1) Working with the Food Safety Division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) to establish the first government-mandated regulations for tomato food safety in the U.S.
2) The industry successfully marketing the crop for returns that provide profitability to the grower.
3) The U.S. Commerce Department successfully negotiating a suspension agreement with Mexican tomato producers to reduce the risk of product being dumped into the market.
4) Congress passing a Farm Bill that provides for country of origin labeling and increased resources for specialty crop growers.
However, the issue that will go down in history for this past season was the Salmonella outbreak that crushed the industry in early June 2008.
Food Safety Is Central
Going forward to this season brings two key issues to the forefront: food safety and public confidence in the food supply. Florida’s tomato food safety program is the result of several years of commitment by the industry, University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and FDACS. The establishment of government audits for both farms and packing facilities throughout the state provides complete coverage for the industry.
This system also provides a model for other groups throughout the country to address this concern prior to FDA establishing such a program for the entire supply system. Food safety can only be accomplished by everyone working together to address potential risk factors. Because these programs are only as good as the “weakest link,” we must reduce the level of risk for the industry. Fresh tomatoes will always pose some risk, but the goal should be to make it as small a risk as possible.
Confidence Is Critical
In a supply-and-demand-driven fresh produce industry, the public confidence in the safety of the food-supply system is a critical factor to the survival of the tomato grower. Even small losses of confidence can diminish demand and result in very low prices. This summer has given us real experiences with low prices beginning in early June. The cost of growing tomatoes continues to rise and traditional returns — let alone current prices — will not support grower profitability. It will be extremely important over this season, and those that follow, that the supply be matched with demand. This can be accomplished with efforts to expand and re-establish demand and by moderating supply to match. At no time in recent memory has this been more critical. If the industry doesn’t “get it right,” the consequences will be devastating.
Room For Improvement
The recent food safety scare has raised many questions about the processes at the Centers For Disease Control and FDA. There is no question that there is considerable room for improving the food safety system in the U.S. The tomato industry is strongly committed to that process so that subsequent outbreaks do not result in the outcomes that we experienced. Food safety is a 24/7 process that everyone in the food supply chain should address with