Tomato Tally

This week, tomato farmers will ask Congress for aid to offset their losses stemming from the incorrect assertion that tomatoes were causing salmonella. (It was Mexican-grown jalapeño peppers.) And farmers are considering a few other options, too.

The off-target warning effectively killed the market for tomatoes. By the time the FDA rescinded its original warning on July 17, the damage was done. The United Fresh Produce Association estimated national losses at $200 million.

photo by Lodigs (via Creative Commons)Even though Georgia was among those cleared by the FDA, farmers there lost plenty of money and roughly half of their spring crop. “This is just a shame what we left out here,” Greg Murray said last week, hunched over a row of pocked, foul-smelling tomatoes roasting in the summer sun.

The timing of the warning, coming in June, was especially cruel, said Murray:

June for us is like Christmas for a department store — it’s our best time of year. And this was a man-made disaster. It wasn’t an act of God. I could take it if a hail storm destroyed my crop. But this just blindsided us.

Georgia grower Virlon Brown, who also let half of his crop die on the vine after prices plummeted, was more succinct:

The federal government caused every bit of this.

Protecting Americans from food-borne illnesses like the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak isn’t an easy job, and human health takes precedence over food waste. I just question the FDA tactics in this instance. While this is easy to conclude in hindsight, it has to be said: seems like there was a real rush to judgment.

A year and a half after spinach outbreak, sales of that vegetable lag. Virlon Brown fears that the false tomato accusation will have a similar effect:

I’ll go into a grocery store and see housewives looking at tomatoes, but they can’t tell if they’re safe or not. Tomatoes still leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

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