Florida growers have not yet recovered from the early 2010 cold snap that led to a nationwide tomato shortage and they are still dealing with those pesky penny-a-pound for pickers protesters, but they did manage to make safety job one.
Florida’s tomato food safety bill will become law with Gov. Charlie Crist’s signature after passing the state’s House of Representatives 114 to 0. It passed the Florida Senate earlier on a 35 to 1 vote.
Once signed by the Governor, the new law imposes minimum safety standards and gives the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services the power to inspect all tomato farms, greenhouses, and packaging facilities.
Florida produces the nation’s most valuable tomato crop. The 1.1 billion pounds of tomatoes are valued at about $620 million. It costs $12,000 per acre to produce tomatoes for domestic and foreign markets.
Two years ago, it was not cold weather but a nationwide scare about Salmonella that U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials originally thought was attributable to contaminated tomatoes. FDA warned Americans not to eat most types of tomatoes.
As producers of up to half of America’s tomatoes, growers in Florida took a financial bath. In one of the more complicated investigations of its kind ever conducted, FDA eventually found the contamination did not involve domestic tomatoes, but traced the outbreak to a Mexican grower of both peppers and tomatoes. Salmonella contamination was found on both.
Florida growers, however, viewed themselves as the victim of a bungled FDA investigation that should have focused on Mexican peppers much sooner than it did.
After the Salmonella outbreak, which made over 1,400 ill during the summer of 2008, Florida growers focused on volunteer safety steps before turning to the current “industry protection” measure.
The industry, led by the cooperative Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, is also dealing with a labor movement that is seeking an extra penny to pound for pickers. Organizers ask for the extra pay not from the growers, but from tomato buyers. Publix Markets in Florida are the latest to be subject to the protests.