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Pundit’s Mailbag — FDA’s Tomato Safety Initiative Revisited

On June 13, 2008, in the midst of the Salmonella Saint Paul Tomato Outbreak, one reader, either prescient or with a remarkable memory, thought to scan the Pundit archives:

I thought it was interesting to note the following archive article, one year ago today!

FDA Begins Tomato Safety Initiative

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 13, 2007

When it comes to food safety, so much of the focus of the produce industry has been on leafy greens that it is easy to forget there are plenty of other items with food safety issues to be dealt with.

The FDA hasn’t forgotten, however, and has announced that it will begin a multi-year Tomato Safety Initiative:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin a Tomato Safety Initiative in the Summer of 2007. The Initiative is a collaborative effort between FDA and the state health and agriculture departments in Virginia and Florida, in cooperation with several universities and members of the produce industry.

FDA developed the Tomato Safety Initiative in response to recurring Salmonella outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes. The Initiative is part of a risk-based strategy to reduce foodborne illness by focusing food safety efforts on specific products, practices, and growing areas that have been found to be problematic in the past.

The Tomato Safety Initiative is modeled after the Leafy Greens Safety Initiative that was initiated in August 2006, in collaboration with the State of California’s Department of Health Services and Department of Food and Agriculture. This new initiative is fully consistent with the 2004 FDA Produce Safety Action Plan goal of minimizing the incidence of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of fresh produce.

Most tomato-associated outbreaks over the past ten years have been traced to product originating from the Eastern shore of Virginia and from Florida; however outbreaks have also been traced to Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and California. Accordingly, FDA, in cooperation with Virginia’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, will begin the Initiative in July of this year, by visiting Virginia based tomato farms and packing facilities to assess their food safety practices and to what degree they implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).

Assessment of a variety of environmental factors including irrigation water, wells, procedures for mixing chemicals, drought and flooding events, and animal proximity to growing fields will also be conducted during the farm and packing facility visits. Later in the year, a similar effort will be conducted in Florida coinciding with the production and harvesting season there.

Other components of the Initiative include continuing outreach with the industry at all points in the supply chain, facilitating and promoting research on tomato safety, and working with federal, state and local public health officials in disease detection and outbreak response.

By identifying practices or conditions that potentially lead to product contamination, FDA can further improve guidance and policy intended to minimize future outbreaks as well as ascertain future produce safety research, education, and outreach needs. The findings of the Initiative will be publicly shared upon completion of the effort, allowing the states and industry members to maximize their food safety efforts as well.

Here at the Pundit we’ve been aware of this issue and have discussed it in many pieces, including Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Florida Tomato Committee’s Reggie Brown and a piece that included a lengthy interview with Ed Beckman, President, California Tomato Farmers, which was entitled Moving Food Safety On To Other Commodities: California Tomato Farmers Raise The Bar.

The positive thing about this FDA effort is that it seems to be a genuine search for knowledge — everything from recommended practices being implemented to searching for other factors that could cause problems which might require a change in what practices are recommended.

Fortunately, the tomato industry in both Florida and California has been pro-active on this issue. Let us hope their efforts are being implemented in other states as well.

Fortunately at Belair Produce, we were spared the rod as we had only had Florida product on hand. We were able to get certified by Wednesday June 11, 2008, in the afternoon and all of our clients were quickly back in business.

I sincerely feel our industry’s pain and aggravations. Special to note that Amy Philpott at United Fresh has been great to deal with and quite informative as to other official views. She now reads your Pundit as well as Joe Mayhew from Landry’s Restaurants…

— Rob Mumma
Senior Vice President of Business Development
Belair Produce, Inc.
Baltimore, Maryland

Many thanks to Rob for his letter and his efforts at boosting Pundit circulation. We especially thank him for reminding us that it was a year ago that the effort was launched.

One important buyer also sent us a note pointing out that:

The tomato industry in Florida and California deserve kudos for the voluntary steps they have taken to get their arms around food safety. We could not have said the same for spinach growers in September 2006.

Without a doubt this is true. Yet, the whole FDA initiative indicates we have just barely begun to understand the nature of the risk and how to avoid it.

One other thing… the FDA Tomato Safety Initiative, which is, as the FDA said in its release “…a collaborative effort between FDA and the state health and agriculture departments in Virginia and Florida, in cooperation with several universities and members of the produce industry…” What is obviously lacking is an international component.

In today’s international world, a problem in Mexico can crush farmers in Florida, California and elsewhere, so these types of initiatives need to look at the supply chain and make sure relevant countries are in the loop in our efforts to enhance food safety.

Once again, many thanks to Rob Mumma and Belair Produce.

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