WASHINGTON – Salmonella supposedly faded away with summer.
In July,the scare over tomatoes and mozzarella or a BLT was lifted when health officials said tomatoes feared to have caused nationwide infections were fine to consume.
Gumshoeing by the Food and Drug Administration pinpointed jalapeño peppers imported from Mexico as a likely culprit.
This would seem to be good news for farmers like Greg Murray,of Bainbridge,Ga.,who grows tomatoes near the Florida border.
But with tomatoes sporting a scarlet letter of sorts,Murray's business has yet to recover from the scare – even though the FDA said within days of the onset that Georgia-grown tomatoes were salmonella-free.
Murray equated the situation to a “hurricane hitting tomato farms everywhere.”
The lifelong Georgia farmer testified at a hearing before a House Agriculture,Rural Development,Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee this week in which representatives took the FDA and Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to task,in part,for contributing to massive losses among farmers.
“No one is in charge,” said the chairwoman,Rep. Rosa DeLauro,D-Conn.,in an aggressive opening statement directed at the FDA's David Acheson,associate commissioner for foods.
The FDA investigated potential outbreaks after reports of several cases of salmonella around the country. The agency conducted statistical surveys to determine foods,restaurants and grocery stores that may have been shared by infected people.
Acheson contended that the first salmonella infections could have been linked to tomatoes – he said no one will ever know – before the later infections were connected to peppers.
“I don't think there is any evidence that FDA made any errors,” he said,explaining that the agency will always err on the side of safety.
Ed Beckman,president of California Tomato Farmers,said the state's $400 million-a-year industry,second nationally to Florida,might bring in only half that this year.
“There wasn't any conclusive evidence that tomatoes were involved,” he said. “We have to have a change of mindset. We need to remove this dark cloud so they can begin to be marketed again.”
Beckman,like Murray,said he was looking into restitution options similar to what a farmer would receive for a natural disaster.
No such restitution has made it through Congress this session.
More than 1,400 people nationwide came down with salmonella,with most suffering from diarrhea,fever and cramping.
According to the CDC,children and the elderly are most at risk because they are most likely to have the infection spread beyond the intestines into areas such as the blood or bones. It is in those stages when the disease can become perilous,although it's rarely fatal.
Tomatoes are just the latest casualty for farmers offered little support following a national health crisis.
The California Department of Agriculture pegs spinach production in the state at $60 million less than it was before an E. coli outbreak two years ago.
DeLauro called for an overhaul to the federal food regulation system. As a preliminary reform,she said she will introduce legislation next week that would split the FDA's food and drug oversight into two independent agencies.
Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston,the senior Republican on the committee,said he was wary of pouring more money into such a project until concrete oversight plans are unveiled. He also said the solution was in the hands of the farmers.
“The market has served well for food safety,” he said,touting the 76 million food-related illnesses per year as rather low.
The subcommittee was in consensus that any new approach must include mandatory prevention and traceability of food contamination. It took the FDA six weeks to find the link to peppers.
In the meantime,Murray's business – not consumers – ate enough tomatoes to feed 90,000 people for a year.
In the beginning of June,his workers started picking the new crop of tomatoes,earning the farm $16.63,per 25-pound box.
Murray said the federal government issued a warning the next day,and by the end of the month,he was pulling down $4.35 for the same amount.
“Right now,there's not much we can do,” he said. “The tomato market crumbled overnight.”