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Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Tomatoes On The Vine From Mexico Be Sold?

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
VP Sales
Kingdom Fresh Produce Inc.
McAllen, TX.

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.

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