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FDA’s Erroneous Statements Clarified By California And Florida Tomato Leaders

As Dr. Acheson has been learning about the produce industry, we wanted to investigate the relevance of some of the points he has been discussing. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more. She turned to Ed Beckman, President of the California Tomato Farmers and Reggie Brown, Manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and Executive Vice President of Florida Tomato Exchange & Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, for insight and information:

Ed Beckman
California Tomato Farmers
Fresno, California

Q: FDA has made a few claims in recent press briefings. Hoping you can comment on their accuracy, clear up any confusion, and put these issues in context relative to this particular outbreak and tomato production in general, can you comment on the following statements made by the FDA?

1. Mexican tomatoes get shipped to Florida for national distribution.

2. Up to 90 percent of tomatoes are repacked.

3. Tomato fields often stay in production for many months.

4. One giant national repacking facility could be taking in both Florida and Mexican tomatoes and shipping them all over the country.

5. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle asked if it was common practice to reuse the boxes these tomatoes are in, and whether that be a vector to transmitting salmonella. Dr. Acheson responded that he wasn’t aware of boxes being recycled in that way, but then continued: ”Certainly we’ve come across some indication tomatoes are taken out of the box for washing and put back in the same box. I can’t speak on how often that occurs but it has been reported by our investigators.”

A: 1. As to whether Mexican tomatoes can be shipped to Florida for repacking, I believe FDA made the comment that Mexican tomatoes are shipped to Florida, repacked, then shipped to Mexico — which is not factual.

2. That 90% of the tomatoes are repacked — no, not factual. As the second largest cooperative in the US, producing over 750 million pounds of tomatoes, this is not an accurate statement. FDA is making a general assumption that may be based upon earlier studies focusing on mature green shipments. However, I’d question the accuracy of the 90% figure when applied to mature green tomatoes. That’s not true of our membership. Certainly, that figure does not apply to vine ripe or roma tomato production or greenhouse beef tomatoes.

3. As to tomato fields staying in production for many months — yes, that is possible but may not be relevant if FDA is looking at mature green tomatoes. Vine ripe, greenhouse and shade cloth production can all remain in production for 20 weeks or more. This is due to the indeterminate nature of the plant, which continues to grow and produce tomatoes over many weeks. FDA’s statement, while true, is not accurate when characterizing mature green tomato production in Florida, California, and other states. In California, our mature green fields are picked once.

4. As to “giant” repackers. There are a number of repackers with multiple facilities and some who have clients that may be well over a thousand miles from their central location. My concern is that many of the press briefings and resulting media coverage focus on the ever-rising number of states — 36 states plus DC — when the focus should be on the actual cluster locations. We know those to be primarily in Texas, with secondary clusters in New Mexico, etc. If one looks at the location of the clusters, the question is raised as to the validity of any statement that would suggest a “giant” repacker is to blame, meaning, associated with distribution into all states.

As noted previously by several individual states, their reported illnesses are the result of people traveling to/from the cluster areas. Thus, it would be more appropriate to focus not so much on a “giant” repacker, but rather, on the suppliers into the cluster region. After all, consider the percentage of illnesses in Texas as compared to all other states. In such a context, is the concept of a “giant repacker” appropriate? The statement raises more questions than it seeks to answer.

5. FDA’s response is correct. In California (and Florida), there are regulatory provisions that prohibit the repacking of tomatoes into other than the original container. However, the problem is that in other states, tomatoes could be repacked into a used container that was not the original container.

Beyond your specific questions, there is the issue of the FDA expanding their investigative scope beyond tomatoes. This takes us back to the first days of the investigation in late May, when FDA raised the issue of fresh tomato products including salsa and guacamole both to industry and to the general public as possible sources of the outbreak.

That message was lost, as FDA’s messaging on specific types of tomatoes that they viewed as safe was all too often the primary messaging. As a result, the media, and many others, focused on the easily identified product… that being whole tomatoes. While we witnessed whole tomatoes being removed from store shelves, in many of those same stores, fresh salsa remained on the shelf.

My greatest concern with the FDA press conference was their statement related to what they viewed as inadequate trace-back within the fresh tomato industry. We were left with the impression that the tomato industry (in general) is somehow at fault and needs to modernize. As to the implementation of advanced trace-back programs, one needs only look at the efforts of Florida and our membership on this issue over the past years.

Revisions to the California Ag Code enacted several years back required growers and shippers to enact trace-back programs; California-based repackers are required to maintain original grower/lot identity in their finished product and if they do not, the product can be removed from the supply chain. In 2006, our membership enacted mandated regulations that go beyond those provided under the California Ag Code. The new Florida statute also provides strict trace-back requirements throughout the supply chain. While there will always be the need to improve trace back throughout the supply chain, such generalized comments (as made Tuesday) only create more doubt among consumers as to the safety of fresh produce. That’s unfortunate.

Reggie Brown
Executive Vice President
Florida Tomato Growers Exchange
Maitland, Florida

Q: FDA’s Dr. David Acheson says that tomato fields often stay in production for many months. Is this true?

A: Depending on the production system being used, if the tomatoes are in a protected culture system. This would relate to indeterminate tomato varieties typically grown in a greenhouse or protected system. I know of some indeterminate tomato varieties planted in December in Canada, harvested in late spring and in production through late November. The plant may be 40 feet long.

Q: But do these long production schedules apply to tomatoes grown in the field?

A: There are tomatoes grown in the field that could be harvested for an extended period of time. The traditional indeterminate tomatoes grow indefinitely in terms of a continuously growing vine, but are typically greenhouse or protected crops in certain parts of the country, mostly in the west and arid climates of the country.

We in the East and in most cases in the West, grow a determinant typ. The tomato grows so many leaves tall and stops growing. There are some indeterminate crops in California on stakes, but most are determinant varieties on the ground and virtually all in the East are determinant.

The bulk of tomatoes grown in Florida are very short-term. There would be some indeterminate crops grown in Mexico. The other types are determinant, relatively short term crops from a harvest standpoint, somewhere between four and six weeks depending on market conditions. It could be three weeks at certain times in Florida. The tomato types involved in the investigation are determinant and would fit in the category of short term harvests of just a few weeks at most.

Greenhouse tomatoes have a harvesting life of at least six months or longer. Even in cases of indeterminate field crops, they wouldn’t have that longevity in the field and may go two or three months at most depending where they are grown.

Q: Dr. Acheson also says that up to 90 percent of tomatoes are repacked. Is that your estimate?

A: I don’t believe that number is accurate. I’m not sure what percentage it would be, but 90 percent sounds extremely high. What is more disturbing is the way FDA throws around erroneous information as facts when it has no basis for making the statements.

Q: FDA says that Mexican tomatoes get shipped to Florida for national distribution. Is that a plausible scenario?

A: It is possible some tomatoes from Mexico are shipped to Florida and may get repacked and distributed. But under federal law, the Tariff Act and Florida state law, the identity and origin would be maintained. It is physically possible to mix Mexican and Florida tomatoes, but it would be misbranding and violate the Tariff Act.

During the period of January and February, we had concerns that some Mexican product coming into Florida was packed and misidentified as Florida product. This would be a violation of state law and the Tariff Act, and if we’re aware of it, it can be dealt with under existing legislation. Product from Mexico may be re-handled in Florida if there is a scarcity of product; it’s an availability issue. But shipping tomatoes back and forth is completely illogical based on operational logistics and trucking costs. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Q: FDA is looking at the possibility that one giant national repacking facility could be taking in both Florida and Mexican tomatoes and shipping them all over the country.

A: The whole principle of a repacking operation, even companies with large market shares, is to have multiple facilities distributing to limited areas for product quality control, freshness and reduced transportation costs. This lack of understanding at the FDA is absurd. This is nothing new. We’ve been working with them three years now. It is bizarre that they act as if this is the first time they’re learning about these things. Did they have a case of amnesia?

What angers me the most is for FDA to imply the industry has antiquated record-keeping procedures. That is a total misrepresentation of reality, an unfair indictment of our industry. It’s the FDA people holding the paper and pencil. FDA is doing a disservice to the repacking industry serving all the major brands by implying that it does not have the professionalism or necessary tools for trace back. You know darn well all the large fast food chains won’t buy from anyone without accurate trace back abilities. The FDA could have gone to Wal-Mart at the start of this investigation and the retailer would have traced back product in record time.

Now they’ve expanded the investigation to other produce items associated with consumption of tomatoes, but won’t say what items they’re investigating, essentially implicating the entire produce industry. Ultimately they’ll find a problem in a processing facility. They didn’t have a problem bringing down the tomato industry, but now all of a sudden they’re taking the moral ground.

Q. A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle asked if it was common practice to reuse the boxes these tomatoes are in, and whether that could be a vector to transmitting salmonella. Dr. Acheson responded that he wasn’t aware of boxes being recycled in that way, but then continued: “Certainly we’ve come across some indication tomatoes are taken out of the box for washing and put back in the same box. I can’t speak on how often that occurs but it has been reported by our investigators?” Could you comment on this?

A. There may be some repacking of tomatoes to the same boxes the tomatoes were shipped in. There are some tomatoes that are packed in the field into used boxes, but it is a relatively small percentage of the product. This is a practice that would be prohibited under the Florida Tomato Food Safety regulations that went into place July 1, 2008.

We thank both Ed and Reggie for helping to clarify these issues. We appreciate the clarification and are sure the FDA will as well.

We do see two points for industry improvement:

  1. The process is excessively driven by Florida and California state laws. It seems that we need a more uniform national standard so that growers and repackers outside of Florida and California are on the same page. It is not appropriate that food safety should be addressed just where there is a production constituency.

  2. We need better data on the industry. There seems to be little hard data on the use of repackers and the scope of their distribution. We should have the data to answer these questions.

We note, with agreement, the outrage at the FDA’s attempts to portray the tomato supply chain as a bunch of hicks who never heard of computers. That sounds like FDA’s own field people making excuses for their own slow effort.

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