WASHINGTON - Frustrated tomato growers and sellers have asked the government to lift a five-week-old salmonella warning and want taxpayers to reimburse them for losses that could exceed $100 million, industry officials said yesterday.
Tomato farmers, packers and distributors made the request to the Food and Drug Administration last week, a month after the agency first told consumers to avoid eating certain tomatoes from suspected regions, later identified as parts of Florida and Mexico.
Industry officials say they no longer see a need to keep the warning. Tomatoes haven't been harvested from the suspected areas in weeks, and investigators haven't found any evidence that tomatoes were to blame. Last week, the government said it had expanded the focus of the investigation to include jalapeno peppers and other produce.
"After going through fields and packing houses, testing over 2,000 samples and not finding one positive, we feel the time has come to release tomatoes and make it clear they were not part of this crisis," said Bob Spencer, a part owner of West Coast Tomato, a Florida grower and packer.
Industry officials from California and Florida, two of the country's leading tomato producing states, said they have started talking to members of Congress about getting legislation that would compensate them for losses that could reach $250 million.
"We believe the FDA basically dropped the ball," said J. Luis Rodriguez, an adviser to Florida Farmers Inc., a trade association. "This was a blatant goof-up, and they should pay."
Since the outbreak began in April, the rare strain of salmonella has sickened more than 1,000 people nationwide, including at least 29 in Maryland. It is the largest salmonella outbreak in at least a decade, and the FDA's inability to identify the source has intensified criticism of the government food safety system.
State and federal investigators implicated tomatoes early on, and the FDA issued a nationwide warning June 7 that cautioned consumers against eating raw red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes. The only exceptions were vine-on tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes - as well as tomatoes from areas that weren't harvesting the crop at the time the outbreak began.
That list of cleared regions has grown to encompass virtually all sources of tomatoes - 44 states and eight countries.
Industry officials have argued to the FDA that, at this point, the warning is serving only to scare away consumers and threaten the long-term prospects of a $3 billion-a-year industry.
"They are very quick to say, 'Stop eating,'" said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers Association, representing Arizona and California farmers, packers and shippers. "They have to put as much effort into saying, 'Tomatoes are safe to eat,' as when tomatoes were the possible source."
FDA officials are talking about eliminating the list of cleared regions and plan to talk with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about possible steps to clarify any warning to consumers, said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for foods. But people keep getting infected, and investigators cannot yet rule out tomatoes, he said.
"The last thing we want to do with this investigation going on and people still getting sick is to lift an advisory on tomatoes and then have to take it back," Acheson said.
Some state health officials have said the FDA is being unfairly singled out, because the agency was acting on the findings of health departments in New Mexico and Texas, working with the CDC, in issuing the warning.
Industry officials maintain that tomatoes aren't a threat to consumers, since suspect regions haven't produced tomatoes in a month or more. They also note new evidence that at least a portion of the outbreak was caused by tainted jalapeno peppers, though no contaminated peppers have yet been found.
Last week, the FDA issued a new warning, cautioning the elderly, infants and those with weakened immune systems to stay away from raw jalapeno and serrano peppers, which are often confused with jalapenos.
Tomato growers are especially frustrated because they must decide soon whether to plant for the coming season. Growers don't want to make the $10,000-an-acre investment if the warning persists and consumer demand remains low.
"If we don't seed the crop, we're out of business. If we do seed the crop and FDA doesn't clear us, we're out of business," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, an association of growers and shippers.
Industry officials say the FDA's inaction has forced them to seek help from Congress. Tomato farmers, distributors and retailers are trying to determine the precise amount of damages the scare has caused.
The tomato industry is also seeking changes to the government food safety system, including standards to follow when deciding when to issue a warning and retract it.