Q: What actions have you taken as advocates of Mexican growers and shippers?
A: Right now we’re still in a holding pattern to hear FDA identify the source of the tomato outbreak. With the alert the way it is and no source identified, a lot of people are left in limbo, just waiting to know what to do. With production started and not being able to ship and sell in the U.S., we’re trying to coordinate all efforts to find a mechanism in Mexico to satisfy the FDA to add areas to the list.
Q: What do you mean by mechanism?
A: We’re coordinating with the Mexican government, making sure they’re in touch with FDA and trying to get FDA to respond to them as quickly as possible. What is the mechanism needed to make FDA comfortable to release the states and regions in Mexico that weren’t in production at the time of the outbreak?
I don’t propose to understand all the thinking and negotiations that go on behind the scenes. We are asking FDA: What do you need to know specifically to say you feel comfortable in the safety of our products to allow us to ship?
We’re compiling documentation and trying to leverage existing trade practices. This is the way we can identify where the grower is located, if the state was in production, and working as an industry with the Mexican government. We are trying to assess how the system can be modified, so FDA can now say, “We feel comfortable to release Baja or Northern Sonora or whatever regions are not related to the outbreak. Where do we stand now, how is this on you comfort level scale?”
Q: What is FDA saying as the reason that Baja is not on the approved source list?
A: We haven’t gotten an industry-specific reason. They would want something like what we’re seeing out Florida, certifications assuring product is coming out of those 19 counties.
Q: Why can’t the FDA institute a similar protocol for Mexican growers in the unaffected regions? It seems like a double standard is taking place.
A: I don’t know if it will be a certificate, or if what we are putting on the paperwork to comply with FDA and the Bioterrorism Act to cross the border ends up being sufficient. It may require we need this certificate or some form of extra assurance. FDA and the Mexican government have to hammer that out.
I hear the heartache from growers stuck in Baja and other states and regions unrelated to the outbreak. They are at a loss, saying, what do we do? Do I pick tomatoes and hold them at the farm, do I ship and hope in the next few days I’ll have customers that will buy? We are searching for that mechanism to allow them to ship in a few days.
It’s difficult to talk to people who say they don’t know what to do with production loads they have. All I can tell them is, sit on it, hold it, or decide if it is something you want to turn around and send back. This brings challenging questions to the way to proceed with operations.
FDA is working on the trace back; sure it’s frustrating to spend many hours and not have something concrete.
Q: Do you believe the FDA at this point understands the production process and logistics in Mexico enough to know that Baja could not be part of the problem?
A: Most likely they do. It’s not a question of Baja being implicated. FDA wants to be sure product coming into the U.S. is from that specific area.
The rub to it all is that if we had a specific source in a faster timeframe, an entire industry would be saved and we could assess what we learned from this moving forward.
Q: And what are the key lessons?
A: Long-term, it’s important to have processes established so when something like this occurs, we know what’s expected. In the event of x, we need to do y and z to make sure these shippers can move product. Our supply chain is complex and varied and there needs to be a way to communicate that. We need to have more specific alerts to more specific regions and not just blanket statements across countries.
Updating lists everyday as information comes in is better than nothing but not ideal. The list has to be known as a transparent process for everybody. The list on one side isn’t the ideal thing. The ideal is faster trace back to the source. FDA wants to keep tomatoes in the supply chain for consumers to eat. They don’t want the industry to disappear for three months, and then all at once it’s fine because production has changed so the problem has gone away.
Keeping as many tomatoes out there as possible is a good thing, having some idea these tomatoes aren’t part of problem. We do want to keep the supply chain and the market moving.
Q: What is your projection on how quickly this ban on Mexico will be lifted and regions in unrelated production areas will be free to ship product?
A: The way things are now, we are helping to coordinate talks with the Mexican government on our side. We don’t believe we’ll see anything imminent. I know they’re working on doing something similar to what’s happening with Florida.
Q: Could you provide a timeline of when the Mexican government and organizations like FPAA began advocating to the FDA on behalf of the country’s growers/shippers?
A: What we tried to do initially as an industry was get feedback on production areas in Mexico, discussing the issue of Baja seemed the obvious first step because it has similar production to California. They’re a neighbor, they’re close, it’s not complicated to explain, it’s a no-brainer. We went with that approach as a start, even though it didn’t include other areas that we knew couldn’t have been related to the outbreak either.
Q: It sounds like your strategy was well-thought-out. Yet your efforts at least to this point have turned out to be futile. What else can you do?
A: Unfortunately, Baja didn’t have an exemption when the list got made. We worked through the Baja government last week to send in a request as well.
The timeline is this: we had provided FDA on Thursday, May 29, some information on production in Mexico and brought up the issue of Baja, California, the northern state. In looking at wanting something clear and concise, it would be obvious to distinguish North Baja as an entire state; it’s easier than saying this part of this state or region. We were just focused on production in that state, although people in the central part of the Peninsula were also affected. Along with that, we provided information on the industry of Mexico in general to help FDA understand.
After this, the governor of Baja sent a follow-up letter to the FDA on June 7, giving an official production picture in Baja north and requesting a way to get Baja, the northern state, exempt. Let’s not make it too complicated. FDA is also diverting a lot of effort into completing its trace back. A part of our intention was to give them space and time to complete the trace back, our number one goal. Whether on the list or not, we want to know what we’re dealing with.
Q: The list of approved sources has become quite cumbersome, including states and countries that aren’t even producing tomatoes at this time. Some people think it would have been more simplistic and easier for consumers to grasp if FDA took the opposite approach; telling consumers it is investigating areas of Mexico and Florida as potential sources of the problem, while exempting certain regions, and every other place is fine.
A: For us, it’s better to have a list of approved places. We don’t want to get into a guessing game of, it could have happened here in Mexico or there in Florida. This is a known OK, versus an unknown. For us, the ideal would be that we don’t have lists at all, but trace back happens so quickly we don’t have this lag time.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: It’s a matter of openly sitting down with industry, determining what are best practices that can be implemented for FDA to review documents, and create common terms that everyone understands. What can we do better between government and industry that might help us? We’re all in the public health business. Our ultimate goal is to have improved pubic health, where the public consumes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables we insure are safe. It behooves us all to figure out where the process broke down and what can we do to fix it.
People feel frustrated that Florida is on the list and Mexico is not. What do we need to do better? We’re in a complex situation. How do we react to what we know and what is going on. FDA is not a faceless organization. It’s filled with people that ultimately want to fix this problem too. I see growers and shippers frustrated. I see people doing the right thing, spending resources, time and money to know the latest science and implement it, and integrating food safety as part of the culture on the farm.
Q: As communications director, how do you disseminate this message to the outside world and defuse the food safety hysteria in the marketplace?
A: We need to get this message out but don’t want to add to the static and confusion in the media. We haven’t put releases out, but we let the members know what’s going on best we can, we just don’t know the specifics. It’s complicated to talk to consumers.
Media likes packaged information, a few sound bites. A lot of times when information is more complicated then a few sound bites, they get it wrong. We’re kind of where we were at the end of last week. We still don’t know our fate.
We have been very encouraged about the level of involvement in this issue by the Mexican Department of Agriculture and the Mexican Department of Commerce and think that today we are in a good place moving forward with the two governments. There are people from Nogales in Mexico City as we speak offering any industry assistance we can give moving forward. It is crucial for us that the two governments are talking, and I believe that is happening now. We just need to keep up the momentum now to move forward.
As we mentioned here, we think this is primarily an issue of distrust between FDA and Mexican authorities. FDA is in a tough spot, afraid that corruption in Mexico will taint the legitimacy of any Certificates of Origin — not exactly a crazy notion — but also afraid to speak out and turn the salmonella/tomato issue into an international cause célèbre.
Allison is almost plaintative — every minute costs fortunes and she is just not in control.
The need for a predictable process Allison talks about is really a very important issue not just for the produce industry but, really, for the whole country.
What is really wrong with this situation is that it turns upstanding citizens into serfs, pleading with the Lord of the Manor for mercy. The amount of discretion the FDA has is simply incompatible with free men and a free society.
This interview is not earth shattering but it is profoundly disturbing. No citizen should ever have to think himself a supplicant when petitioning government for redress of grievances.
And no honest business man should have his bankruptcy or prosperity hinge on the discretion of an FDA bureaucrat.
Fixing this is every bit as important as fixing food safety.
SPECIAL EDITION IV:
President & COO
Strube Celery and Vegetable Co.
Yes, a standing task force or committee with the ability to tap into commodity-by-commodity expertise would be a very good resource for the industry to have at the ready.
Honestly, though, we are not convinced that it was a lack of knowledge that has led to the current situation with the FDA changing its website daily and thus causing more confusion as it added regions to its “not implicated” zones.
Even without standing committees, we are pretty convinced an e-mail from FDA to United, PMA, WGA, etc., requesting a list of all tomato areas in production or shipping to a region or the US during a certain period of time, would have been met with a quick response.
The problem is that FDA didn’t ask.
FDA seems to have genuinely wanted to minimize the impact of its advisories, mindful of the destruction it caused during the spinach crisis. So it came upon this idea to minimize damage by creating a list of regions “not implicated,” but it never asked the industry for a comprehensive list. Otherwise FDA wouldn’t have added, for example, New Jersey to the "not implicated list" as we were writing this article.
The other problem is that the FDA doesn’t want to point fingers and implicate innocent parties. This sounds like a good idea but de facto means everyone is implicated until declared “not implicated” and this causes much confusion.
If you watch David Watson in the newsreel you will note he speaks English instead of FDA-ese, translating the long list of “not implicated” states and countries into a simple caution about Florida, at least before the FDA move, and Mexico.
We, of course, hope that a solution comes that allows Strube and all others, in Mexico and the US, to sell their Mexican tomatoes. Partly because we hate to see innocent businesspeople crushed by circumstances beyond their control but, also, because it is certainly a shame and quite possibly a sin to waste so much food when there is poverty and hunger in the world.
As for David Watson and Strube, we appreciate the letter and, Dave, if this produce thing doesn’t work out, you have a bright future in newscasts.
We started out with Salmonella And Tomatoes Linked In New Mexico, then in quick succession we did three separate special issues: Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak…Insights and Analysis plus As Tomato/Salmonella Outbreak Expands, Government Agencies Require More Scrutiny and SPECIAL REPORT: Tomato/Salmonella Source List Narrows But Some Regions Ruined.
The coverage brought this letter from across the globe:
As a person heavily involved with tomato production, sales and distribution… I thought it would be good to let you know that this outbreak has also had an impact on the tomato business in New Zealand.
Currently we are not exporting any tomatoes, but do have a reasonable programme in our summer.
New Zealand does export to Hong Kong through winter (small volumes), but this has ceased because the Hong Kong newspapers printed your issue incorrectly — they said “New Zealand” had the salmonella outbreak instead of New Mexico! Anyone looking at a map of the world would realize these two countries are not on the same continent.
Reading your updates, I have an empathy for all those tarnished with bad press about one instance they were not involved with.
North Island Tomatoes
Turners & Growers Ltd
We appreciate the letter and the attention to the American market, but we wonder if there isn’t more to the situation in Hong Kong than a case of mistaken identity. This article, Red Alert as Tomatoes Pulled, from The Standard does say that “…local food and hygiene chiefs are carrying out tests on US-imported tomatoes after outbreaks of salmonella…” but it also says this:
The authorities in New Zealand have slapped an export ban on tomatoes and capsicums after the mysterious bug reported to be new to science was found in three commercial hothouses in Auckland.
We are not sure what the situation is with New Zealand tomatoes, and we hope one of our readers in New Zealand will clarify the situation for us.
We do, however, think it worth noting that the FDA is handily destroying an export item as well as the US reputation for food safety. Although the Hong Kong market is small:
Hong Kong imported 16,647kg of fresh or chilled tomatoes from the United States worth HK$608,000 in 2007.
There are other export markets, and to many overseas, US produce is US produce and a chink in the armor will reflect badly on all US fresh produce and, indeed, all US food products.
We thank Aaron for his note and appreciate his commiseration with those who suffer in the US and Mexico, we welcome more detailed information from readers on what is going on in New Zealand.
In the context of our exhaustive coverage of an issue such the Salmonella Saintpaul/tomato outbreak, sometimes a single paragraph of a single story can cry out to a reader and crystallize an important issue. If we are fortunate than our reader will decide to share that insight with the entire industry, and indeed, we are all lucky today:
Your article, Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban, part of your Tomato/Salmonella Source List Narrows But Some Regions Ruined, included this paragraph:
“That means FDA calling up USDA, calling up the produce trade groups and asking this question: “What are the growing areas that could or could not be implicated in this outbreak?” FDA quickly develops one list and publishes it. If implicated areas are cleared, they get removed, but FDA shouldn’t wait for a senator from Florida to call before it correctly characterizes a region in Florida.”
I wholeheartedly agree. The spinach industry could have been saved a lot of grief if FDA had used some of the modern tools available. Attached here is a report I pulled from the ACN ScanTrack data we purchase. This report was pulled right after the ban on all spinach consumption was announced in September 2006. I originally ran the report to check if our brand, Popeye, could be the source of the contaminated spinach. I was able to confirm that it looked like “no”.
The report is a list of all packaged spinach items. Across the top are the ACN markets in the states that FDA initially identified as having illnesses. There was only one item that sold in all 20 of those markets: Earthbound Farms Baby Spinach. Dole and Fresh Express were in most of the markets due to their wide distribution but they were not in all of the markets.
The FDA’s recall list certainly could have been swiftly narrowed to Natural Selection Foods and the brands they packed (which included Dole at the time) if the FDA used some modern research techniques. A quick look at NSF’s inbound supply records would have also told them that the infected area was limited to San Benito County and had nothing to do with Salinas Valley or the rest of the country. But here we go again…
— Leslie Tripp
Director of Marketing
River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC
We thank Leslie very much for this letter as we think it hits a key problem — an FDA somewhat trapped in the past. One wonders how many people at FDA bothered to pull the same data that Leslie did. Our guess, none. In fact they probably don’t pay for the data, so they don’t have access to it and probably don’t have anyone who knows how to read the reports anyway.
This is where all the proposals to increase FDA funding miss the mark; just pouring more money into an antiquated system doesn’t make it modern. You need a commitment from the top to truly modernize and an understanding of what a paradigm-changing system can actually look like.
There is something else. It is easy to think that the problem at FDA is ignorance. All of us in the industry have been staring at the CDC map of where people have gotten ill and scratching our heads at how FDA can continue to suspect Florida. It makes everyone think we need to go educate the FDA about produce product flows.
The truth, though, is that the FDA does not really make judgments. It does not take calculated risks, and it has an absolutist attitude and demands an unreasonable standard of proof before ruling something out even as a kind of working hypothesis.
So, no distribution of product will ever make an FDA that thinks like this one move ahead on the assumption that the tomatoes implicated are from Mexico.
Equally, had we flown Leslie Tripp and the CEO of AC Nielsen to Washington, DC, to give a presentation to FDA about this product flow, although we think it should have, we don’t think it would have changed FDA’s actions in the spinach crisis.
Most of us, most of the time, have to make decisions in the context of weighing pros and cons. So, for most of us the decision to impose a defacto ban on spinach or tomatoes or one firm’s cantaloupes would involve weighing the benefits in terms of food safety against the costs, in terms of food destroyed, jobs destroyed, etc.
Once it is identified that there is a pathogen that has caused an illness, there is no longer any counterweight. So if thousands of people in Mexico are thrown into poverty as a result of a ban on Mexican tomatoes — that is just not part of the mission of FDA.
If spinach farmers in New Jersey went broke — it just wasn’t FDA’s problem.
If thousands of people lose their jobs picking Honduran melons, that is just not something to be considered.
If you look at the list of sources “not implicated” in the current outbreak, it has nothing to do with FDA looking at food safety programs, product flows or, in fact, making any judgment at all. It is a list of places that could not be a part of the outbreak because they either were not shipping at all or were not shipping to the US at the time in question. No judgment, no interpretation required.
Leslie is suggesting the FDA needs to step up to the plate and make the best decisions possible based on rational probabilities, not abstract possibilities. Remember Leslie’s point in reading the data was not that it was impossible to see a way for it to be River Ranch — there could be tourists, etc. — the point is that it “looked like” a no-brainer and that acting on that basis would be reasonable. This is a good point, but we are quite far from there in terms of the FDA adopting this ethos.
Many thanks to Leslie and to River Ranch for sharing this important data and thought-process with the industry.
We consider ourselves blessed to receive some very generous fan mail at the Pundit, but sometimes it goes the other way. So our comprehensive coverage on the Salmonella Saintpaul/Tomato crisis brought this brief, but pointed, critique:
Your repeated attacks on the FDA are not logic nor science-based and put industry protection ahead of consumer protection.
— Bill Gerlach
Research and Development Director
Melissa’s World Variety Produce
Los Angeles, California
Although we enjoy it when people say nice things about our work, we also value those who bring different points of view and are willing to engage in rigorous debate to benefit the industry, the country and the world as a whole.
We have no problem with criticism and recognize that we have no monopoly on truth, so we encourage withering intellectual scrutiny of our ideas. It is exciting, stimulating and helps the whole industry advance.
Unfortunately, this kind of letter doesn’t advance much of anything. We’ve met Bill, he seems like a nice guy; we even published a letter from him once before.
Today’s letter, though, strikes us more as name-calling than anything that will help us grow as an industry.
You want to say that we are illogical? Fair game. But in what way are we illogical? Which article was illogical? Which sentence or claim?
We have a lot of very important readers. If our logic is flawed, we want to correct it, to make a better Pundit — and a better industry.
Yet Bill’s letter doesn’t give us a clue as to what he is talking about.
The same goes for Bill’s assertion that we are not “science-based” — what is he talking about? What scientific fact did we have wrong? In which article? Which day’s issue?
Once again, we are open to critique and acknowledge the possibility, indeed the probability of error — but find this type of critique worthless. We urge people who disagree to engage with us because that is what will make for better decisions, but this is just name-calling.
We will try to address the also unsupported allegation that we “…put industry protection ahead of consumer protection.”
Once again, without a specific example, it is difficult to know why Bill says this but, as a principle, we would say this about our work in this area:
All of us want safe food, and as the father of two young children and the son of a man who had his immune system destroyed by chemotherapy in order to fight a deadly leukemia, we bow to few others in our demand for a safe food supply.
Within the industry, we push and prod for an emphasis on sustainability and sustainability for this industry requires a happy — and healthy and living — customer base. So we can think of few things more important to the industry than producing safe food.
Yet, this all being said, we recognize that consumers of food are not SOLELY consumers of food, and so there are trade-offs in food as there are in most segments of life.
When they purchase a car, very few people think SOLELY of auto safety. They trade off different values — perhaps a larger car is safer, but it costs more to operate.
In society, we recognize the legitimacy of these types of trade-offs. If there is an auto accident and a person dies, we do not declare that model car “flawed” and stop everyone from driving it until we ascertain the “problem” and ensure it has been “fixed.”
In fact we understand fully that we could make the car safer by, say, requiring bigger and stronger bumpers, but we don’t do so because that would raise the weight and the price of the car.
So when we look at food safety, we think about safe food, of course, but we also see trade-offs.
The food supply is exceptionally safe. Just the other day, we ran a piece which analyzed the risk to consumers of this Salmonella outbreak:
As of the latest update, there are 167 people who are known to have gotten sick from Salmonella Saintpaul, with the same genetic fingerprint as is implicated in this outbreak.
If we assume all of these people did, in fact, get it from tomatoes and that for each known sick person there are 99 unknown people who also were sickened by this outbreak but were not sick enough to require treatment, we wind up with a total of 16,700 people sickened as a result of this outbreak.
Now the CDC tells us that this outbreak has had people reporting an onset of illness starting on April 16 and going to May 27, 2008, or a total of 40 days. It is always possible people ate for a day or two before they got sick but let us, for this thought experiment, assume 40 days of consumption.
USDA Economic Research Service reported that in 2006 per capita tomato consumption was 19.9 pounds of tomatoes per person.
Forty days is 11% of a 365-day year, and 11% of 19.9 lbs is 2.19 lbs. A serving of fresh tomatoes is typically represented as ½ cup or 90g or 3.17 ounces.
If you do the math, you find out that during this 40-day period, the average American consumed 11.05 servings of fresh tomatoes.
The current US population is about 305 million people. So during this 40-day period, people ate around 3,370,250,000 servings of fresh tomatoes.
If we go back to our assumption that 99 people got sick for every one we know about, then the odds during this 40-day period that an average person would eat a serving of tomatoes with sufficient salmonella to cause illness was 16,700/3,370,250,000 or 0.000005%.
In announcing its warnings, if an FDA spokesperson prefaced these warnings by saying, “We calculate that during the last 40 days, Americans have been running a .000005% risk of consuming a serving of tomatoes with sufficient salmonella to cause illness as a result of this outbreak, so we are warning against consumption of…” we doubt we would see many of these New York Post-type headlines. In fact, we are not sure anyone would listen to the FDA and its warnings.
Because fresh produce is so safe, it is not clear that consumers would actually choose to pay more to make it safer… or that they should.
Maybe instead of investing in safer food, we should invest in safer cars.
It can’t be an issue of the industry vs. consumers. The industry always must serve consumers.
The question is: What do consumers actually want?
Many thanks to Bill for his letter.
Our exhaustive coverage typically focuses on larger industry issues but, sometimes, one needs to just understand how the rules work with regard to one’s own business:
Let me start by saying I enjoy reading your column very much, probably because I share your views on most issues.
I am a hydroponic greenhouse tomato grower/shipper based here in McAllen, Texas. Our greenhouses are located in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico. We farm 240 acres of just beefsteak tomatoes.
We have advertised with your print publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, in the past and in my 25 years in this industry I have seen many things but never anything as absurd as what is happening with the FDA and their handling of this Salmonella scare.
I have read about Florida’s arguments, I have heard all about Baja and why they should be exempt (and they should be), but I have not heard, seen or read any reference to what criteria FDA used to exempt tomatoes on the vine (TOV tomatoes).
This is important because they exonerated an entire production process in one blanket statement. TOV tomatoes are grown in greenhouses. Is this why they are ok?
Can Mexican TOV’s be sold? They are TOV’s?
If the logic used to exempt TOV’s was they are grown hydroponically, then why no mention of other hydroponic tomato items? I have written letters to some of our trade associations to this effect and was dismissed like a begging child. I have called FDA over and over and gotten no response.
I am turning to you to see if you will address this issue before us greenhouse producers have to destroy our crops and decide how to go forward.
— Dan Edmeier
Kingdom Fresh Produce Inc.
Dan, thank you for writing. We are truly sorry you’ve been getting the run around. Let us try and explain how it works.
FDA does not make decisions such as evaluating one growing method over another. So you will never hear them say that “because these cantaloupes are grown on plastic with drip irrigation, we think they are safer than those grown with a different irrigation program.” They just don’t make substantive decisions about growing practices.
It all goes back to the people who have gotten ill.
The government surveys healthy people to find out what they eat; this gives it a baseline. When someone has a foodborne illness, they give the survey to that person and they look for discrepancies between the baseline healthy survey and the sick person’s survey.
If they have enough people they can compare these two and note that the sick people have disproportionately eaten spinach or cantaloupe or fresh tomatoes. The survey can also note whether they have disproportionately eaten at Taco Bell or another restaurant chain.
So the reason the government knows it is tomatoes — remember we have no tomatoes with any salmonella on them — is that the sick people overwhelming and disproportionately share the characteristic of eating fresh tomatoes or tomato products made from fresh tomatoes just prior to getting ill.
There are certain characteristics that the CDC and FDA have found consumers are good at distinguishing. So the announcement in this case always mentioned “red” tomatoes as being implicated. This is because the government finds consumers can remember and distinguish if they had, say, yellow or purple tomatoes.
Equally, the announcement has distinguished cherry and grape tomatoes — not because the FDA has any faith in the horticultural practices used on these items — but simply because consumers did not implicate them, and the government believes that consumer memories in this area can be trusted.
Tomatoes on the vine have also been exonerated not because they grow in greenhouses, nor because the FDA did an exhaustive study of the horticultural practices involved in growing tomatoes on the vine but simply because the sick consumers did not report eating tomatoes on the vine and the government believes this is a category they can distinguish.
The answer to your specific question about Mexican tomatoes on the vine is that, yes, grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine are not believed to be implicated in the outbreak and so they can be bought, sold and consumed freely — from Mexico or anyplace else.
We hope this both answers the questions Dan has asked and explains how those answers came about. If we can clarify any other aspect of the rules, please don’t hesitate to let us know how we can help.