The Florida Tomato Committee lost its battle to restrict sales of UglyRipe Brand tomatoes, but a more important long-term battle is to assure trade buyers and consumers safe product and, on that score, the industry is working hard to succeed.
This interview, conducted by Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott, is part of a continuing series highlighting food safety efforts made by regional groups such as the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and commodity-specific groups such as the California Strawberry Commission.
Reggie Brown, Manager,
Florida Tomato Committee
Executive Vice President,
Florida Tomato Exchange & Florida Tomato Growers Exchange
Q: Could you put into context your latest industry food safety efforts?
A: A few years ago, FDA put an open letter out to various commodity groups, including those in the lettuce and greens business and the tomato industry, indicating concern and giving notice to the industry to address food safety problems. That’s what prompted the tomato industry to start the North American Tomato Trade Work Group, made up of members in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The group developed the first draft of a food safety program that we submitted to FDA about a year ago.
In Florida, we also started looking at a Federal Marketing Order to mandate a food safety program within the state. We had dialogue with FDA about the fact the original act formed in the 1940’s didn’t reference food safety. It’s been a bit of a struggle to get approval for food safety requirements through a marketing order.
The California industry was trying to pass a state law to get authority to regulate food safety in its state. That legislation passed in the state legislature in 2006, and was subsequently vetoed by the California governor.
Q: When that effort reached a dead end, what did you do?
A: When we discovered we couldn’t be successful with the marketing act, we in Florida proceeded to talk with Charles Bronson, the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, an authority in Florida state law for food safety regulations. He has the ability to implement food safety regulations for various products.
We approached him about the industry’s private and public effort to bring about a mandatory food safety program in Florida for tomatoes. We went into a full effort a year to a year-and-a-half ago. We’ve put together Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Best Manufacturing Practices (BMPs) for tomatoes in the state of Florida.
Q: Do growers follow those practices voluntarily?
A: We are on course to accomplish putting these practices in place on a mandated basis by state law by September 2007. As of September 2006, the industry is voluntarily complying with these regulations as we work for mandatory implementation.
Q: How did your recent food safety conference in Florida turn out, and are there plans for more meetings in the future?
A: We’re out on the edge of the knife and have been out there for quite some time. We worked with the FDA, as well as with other states, to put on a regional workshop in Florida in late November. We held the meeting in conjunction with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (FAS) at the request of the FDA.
From that meeting, we are proceeding to work with the FDA, which is hosting a meeting in late February, bringing in the research community for tomatoes, to discuss what we know, don’t know, and the resources we need to fill the gaps. We’re trying to put industry regulatory groups and scientists together to move constructively to address legitimate issues.
Q: Are buyers invited?
A: Not at this point. Retailers and food service operators are not included. There was a limited cross section of retailers and re-packers in the North American Tomato Trade Work Group. Our regulation basically mirrors the product from that program. This is not a new wheel we’re inventing. We’re just trying to be sure we all have the same number of spokes on it.
Q: How do your efforts gel with the other food safety proposals currently being developed?
A: There are some questions relative to food safety. A significant amount of research is necessary to understand how the outbreaks happened and prevent them from reoccurring. That’s our goal.
The tomato industry has acted spiritedly to insure we are all aggressively engaged.
It all costs money. We need to avoid a lot of significant duplication on the research process. There is a limited amount of money out there and we need to focus on asking and answering our most pressing questions.
Our approach is to bring the entire industry under mandatory regulations and audits. The reality is that whether it’s a Florida tomato or one from New Jersey, Ohio or California, experience in the marketplace shows that foodborne illness linked to any tomato is an industry problem, not a regional one.
We’re trying to deal with the problem through science to minimize these occurrences. There have been occasional outbreaks with salmonella, relatively short in duration, but the attention with the press never dies. We are working on best traceability methods and improved food safety measures based on scientific research. This takes time. In the meantime, we must apply the best science we have to minimize the chance of outbreaks.
We’re moving forward to bring about mandated regulations. We encourage other states, industry organizations and foodservice groups to learn more about our efforts at http://www.floridatomatoes.org. In saying that, I don’t want to appear as though we think we have all the answers to the world’s food safety problems, but we want to open a dialogue.
Much appreciation to Reggie for speaking out and helping the industry to advance by letting us know all about the efforts being done to make tomatoes safe. Reggie makes several key points:
- In Florida they have not been able to use the Marketing Order for food safety purposes.
- They expect food safety requirements to be enforced by state law as of September 2007.
- Money is needed for research.
- They want every tomato producer covered. An outbreak anywhere is bad for anybody.
So much attention has been paid to fresh-cut spinach and lettuce, but the trade’s challenges don’t end there. Commodity by commodity, region by region, efforts must be made… efforts such as are being made with tomatoes.