When produce is packed and shipped over long distances, there's more time for a bacterium like salmonella to colonize. Once the germs come in contact with a tomato, it takes about 90 minutes for them to attach themselves to the surface. Then, under suitable conditions, the colonies of microorganisms will eventually cover the surface of the tomato, says Kaletunc. If the tomato has any cuts or bruises, the salmonella can also grow inside the fruit, where it can survive even if the tomato is washed thoroughly.
Locavores insist that smaller farms have a safety advantage because they avoid the lengthy multistep packing and shipping process that is used by many corporate farms. "The produce is harvested by migrant workers, shipped to a processing facility, then a packaging facility, then a delivery truck and finally to a grocery store. There are just so many steps that contamination issues can and do occur," says Gary Cox, the legal council for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Newsweek
Florida's new record-keeping rules may be key to protecting the industry in the future. Tracing contamination is much more difficult with produce than it is with a packaged product, like cereal, where there are tracking codes stamped on the box. It requires documentation at every stage, from where the tomato seeds were purchased to which labor crews were used to where the produce was sold or repacked. But the benefits are there for farmers, even if the paperwork seems onerous.
The Florida tomato growers went to the Florida legislature last year and requested oversight and inspections to prevent these outbreaks."We want mandatory inspections to bring everybody that handles tomatoes in the state in the loop to comply with food safety," said Tony DiMare, vice president of Homestead-based DiMare companies, one of the state's largest tomato growers. "We wanted to take a proactive approach and stay ahead of the curve."
FLORIDA COUNTIES POISED TO BEGIN SHIPPING TOMATOES AGAIN
AFTER BEING ADDED TO FDA'S "SAFE TO EAT" LIST
Industry estimates economic losses could add up to more than $500 million
MAITLAND, Fla. (June 11, 2008) - Florida's tomato growers enthusiastically welcomed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's announcement that consumers are clear to eat tomatoes harvested in 19 Florida counties. The counties encompass the Ruskin-Palmetto and Quincy areas of the state, Florida's prime tomato-producing regions.
The FDA said the following counties are not associated with the outbreak of salmonella saintpaul: Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Madison, Suwannee, Hamilton, Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee, Desoto, Sarasota, Highlands, Pasco, Sumter, Citrus, Hernando and Charlotte.
"This allows us to get Florida tomatoes back into supermarkets and restaurants and to move forward in rebuilding consumer confidence in safe, healthy produce," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. "Our growers are working overtime to get their products back into the marketplace."
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services worked with the FDA to get the counties added to the "safe to eat" list. Growers will provide a certificate issued by the state with each shipment of tomatoes verifying they were harvested after May 1. The Tomato Growers Exchange urges restaurants and supermarkets to contact their shippers for more information.
The losses already incurred by the state's tomato industry during the outbreak are major. Growers estimate that ultimately the economic impact will be more than $500 million.
"Until now, the market has been in complete collapse. Crops have remained in fields, packinghouses and in the distribution system," Brown said. "The losses are staggering."
No illnesses linked to Salmonella saintpaul have been reported in the Southeast, a primary destination for Florida tomatoes this time of year. "It's unfortunate that anyone has become ill. However, we've had confidence in our tomatoes all along - we just had to wait for FDA and the CDC to do their trace-back work," Brown said.
The Florida tomato industry remains committed to the production of a safe product. Florida is the first state in the country to adopt a comprehensive food safety program with mandatory government inspection and audit of its tomatoes. "Those involved in the growing and marketing of fresh tomatoes voluntarily incorporate food safety as part of their everyday business practices," he said. "We're committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure consumer confidence in our crops."
Critics of big industrial farms say that the latest foodborne outbreak has given a boost to the local food movement, which promotes buying produce from nearby farmers (advocates are sometimes called locavores). And it's not hard to see why consumers might make the leap from thinking that if the FDA says homegrown tomatoes are OK, then tomatoes bought directly from small farmers might be the next best thing. "With each incident, it's pushing people more and more to buy locally and from family farms," says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist with the Organic Consumer Association, a group that avidly supports local, family farms. "So much so, in fact, that farmers' markets across the United States are recording record sales this year."
And it's true that the number of people buying from farmer's markets, food co-ops and small vendors is growing. The bulk of all produce consumed by Americans still comes from large growers and distributors, but the USDA reports that farmers' market and direct-to-consumer farm sales rose by almost 19 percent between 2004 and 2006.