Tomato growers seek compensation following “unfair” blame for salmonella outbreak

Posted by Editorial on 28th July 2008

The cause of the ongoing salmonella outbreak witnessed in America is still unknown, although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears closer to finding the culprit.

There have been more than a thousand cases of illness across 42 states since the initial outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul some 14 weeks ago. The initial blame was placed squarely on tomatoes but the FDA has since indicated that tomatoes are unlikely to be the cause and tomato growers are consequently looking for compensation.

Congressman Tim Mahoney has introduced a bill to compensate tomato growers and packers nationwide for their losses due to the salmonella scare, which according to the Florida Tomato Exchange’s estimates could be close to $100 million.

Congressman Mahoney, who is Florida’s only representative on the House Agriculture Committee, also called on the Committee to hold field hearings in his district to examine what reforms are needed to ensure food safety. The Agriculture Committee plans to schedule a hearing in mid-September. “The FDA’s warnings about tomatoes devastated the $1.3 billion tomato industry. Due to the timing of the salmonella outbreak, Florida was hit hard. We need to ensure that all impacted tomato growers and packers are compensated for their losses to protect domestic food production,” said Congressman Mahoney. “With unfortunate events like this, Americans are becoming aware that food safety and national security are synonymous. We clearly need to examine and overhaul our food safety system to ensure that the food we grow and import is safe.”

In April, the FDA issued a nationwide warning that tomatoes were a possible source of a salmonella outbreak that made 1,220 people ill in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. After a long investigation, the FDA recently determined that fresh tomatoes now available in the domestic market are not associated with the current outbreak and the agency has rescinded its warning against eating certain types of red raw tomatoes. The focus then shifted to Jalapeno and Serrano peppers, although it has now been narrowed to raw jalapeno peppers from Mexico.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz added that the issue highlights the need to improve the traceability of food produce in the country. “The tomato industry in our state has unfairly suffered enough,” Rep. Wasserman Schultz (FL-20) said. “The FDA must reform their trace-back programs so that growers and consumers do not have to go through the same nightmare during future outbreaks.”

The US Department of Agriculture will be responsible for issuing regulations and determining eligibility for compensation, as they have in other disaster programs.