RICHMOND, Va. — The 6,000 acres of tomatoes grown on Virginia’s sea-swept Eastern Shore were never implicated in the national salmonella outbreak — they were still on the vine weeks after people starting getting sick.
Still, that hasn’t made much difference to tomato broker Batista Madonia III, who has seen sales and prices plummet in the wake of a salmonella outbreak that sickened people in 42 states and left the nation’s tomato industry feeling woozy as well.
Since the government announced it was investigating whether tomatoes caused the outbreak that began in April, the nation’s tomato industry estimates it has lost more than $100 million. Health investigators have not been able to find tomatoes that contained the salmonella strain that sickened 1,220 people, and the government last Thursday lifted its salmonella warning involving tomatoes.
The move hasn’t brightened the outlook of the $1.3 billion industry, and the stigma and uncertainty of the salmonella’s origin are likely to add to its losses.
“The damage has been done. I don’t think we’ll ever get over it,” said Madonia, sales manager for East Coast Brokers & Packers, which grows 4,000 acres on the Eastern Shore.
At height of summer, when tomatoes are a staple of the picnic season, growers have seen their plump red produce pulled from fast-food menus and passed over by shoppers.
“Summer is our biggest window of opportunity. If we miss this season, we can’t get it back,” said Tom Deardorff, a farmer in California, which grows the most tomatoes in the U.S. “It’s hard to force people to eat tomatoes at Christmastime.”
Deardorff, a Ventura County farmer who grows 600 acres of beefsteak and Roma tomatoes, worries it could take a year or more for consumers to regain their appetite for tomatoes.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted July 10-14 found that while three in four people remain confident about the overall safety of food, 46 percent said they were worried they might get sick from eating tainted products.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without worrying about salmonella Saintpaul, the outbreak strain.
The elderly and people with weak immune systems — those most vulnerable to food-borne illnesses — should avoid fresh jalapenos and serranos, and any dishes that may contain them, such as fresh salsa, federal health officials have advised.
Growers in Florida and Georgia, the No. 2 and 3 tomato-producing states, respectively, agreed the damage may be too much to overcome. The harvest is winding down or has ended in those states, and growers are deciding how many acres to devote to tomatoes during the fall.
“We’re glad for Virginia, for North Carolina growers,” said Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. “But it’s not going to help Georgia growers.”
For states where tomatoes will be harvested in the weeks to come, the challenge will be overcoming consumer suspicion of the industry.
Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, said the industry will have to win back consumer confidence through lower pricing and pitching the health benefits of fresh tomatoes.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has worked to spread the news that the state-grown tomatoes are safe, even offering “Virginia Grown” labels to producers.
“I think people may still be a little leery about tomatoes of unknown origin, but the overwhelming reaction I’ve heard or heard about from the public is that they think Virginia tomatoes are safe and they are enjoying them fully,” the department’s spokeswoman, Elaine Lidholm, said in an e-mail.
Madonia said it took too long for the government to rule out tomatoes in the salmonella outbreak.
“Every lot of tomatoes we pack we test for salmonella and E. coli,” Madonia said. “God knows what I spend on rubber gloves and hairnets.”
California broker Sam Carswell, who has been in the tomato business for 50 years, said he’s lost 75 to 80 percent of his sales this season.
“From the beginning I had my suspicions it wasn’t tomatoes, because the only time they’re touched is when they’re picked and packed,” said Carswell, who is shipping tomatoes for the Central California Tomato Growers Cooperative. “The government needs to put out the information as best they can. They put out the bad information quite a bit, but they just need to make sure everybody knows tomatoes are safe.”
A fourth-generation tomato grower in Florida said farm workers were already preparing 2,500 acres for the August planting.
“You deal with the elements, you deal with the cards you’re dealt, and you just move on,” said Jim Granger, owner of Taylor and Fulton in Palmetto, Fla., on the central-Gulf Coast of the state.
Associated Press writers Tracie Cone in Fresno, Calif., and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Unlike many other foods, tomatoes don’t come with bar codes that let
investigators quickly track their suppliers. Consumers seldom even know
in what part of the world they were grown. Moreover, it can take two to three weeks between when someone ate a
tainted tomato, got sick, got diagnosed and health authorities complete
testing showing it’s the outbreak strain. More »
Unlike many other foods, tomatoes don’t come with bar codes that let investigators quickly track their suppliers. Consumers seldom even know in what part of the world they were grown. Moreover, it can take two to three weeks between when someone ate a tainted tomato, got sick, got diagnosed and health authorities complete testing showing it’s the outbreak strain. More »
This Food and Drug Administration resource page provides readers with breaking information on the outbreak, answers to frequently asked questions, consumer health information, news on what the agency is doing and more. More »