The California fresh market tomato industry could lose up to $550 million in the wake of last summer’s outbreak of salmonella-contaminated fresh produce that sickened 1,400 people nationwide.

And not one California-grown tomato was implicated in the lead national news story that screamed “attack of the killer tomatoes” for many evenings.

It was a frustrated Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers, who detailed the nightmare that continues at the 27th Annual Agribusiness Management Conference held this fall in Fresno.

Beckman says the losses to California fresh market tomato growers have been estimated as high as $300 million from stores and restaurants pulling tomatoes off produce shelves and restaurant menus in 2008.

The fallout could drop California tomato sales to only $250 million this year, from the $500 million last season.

Six months after the outbreak, closure is far away. Recovery is a work-in-progress for an industry that has changed forever, says Beckman.

The California tomato industry is already self- and governmentally over-regulated. However, the Florida and California fresh market tomato industries have called for mandatory, nationwide science-based regulations that would apply not only to all producers and shippers, but to supermarkets and restaurants, which are now exempt from recordkeeping. Beckman calls this recordkeeping the foundation for traceback by the end user.

“Food safety is not a problem just on the farm. Food safety is a responsibility shared by all who handle the product,” Beckman points out.

The 2008 salmonella outbreak “cannot happen again,” he says.

The irony in what happened last summer is that the California growers were the first to develop a fresh tomato comprehensive food safety guidance program.

Two years ago, the 54 growers in the California Tomato Farmers association raised the food safety standard for the tomatoes they produce — which represent eight out of 10 fresh tomatoes raised in California.

This standard, enforced by California Department of Food and Agriculture auditors under contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mandates an audit score of 100 percent for compliance.

Regardless, Beckman says the California track record was not sufficient to overcome the public perception that fresh tomatoes could make people ill. Even though the FDA excluded California tomatoes from the outbreak, the disaster was not abated for California producers.

There are other issues in preventing a repeat of the 2008 debacle, including the repacking of tomatoes after they leave grower fields.

This makes tracking more difficult. Although California growers and processors cannot reuse containers, other states do no forbid it.

However, the bigger challenge is what has been defined as the ‘underbelly’ of the industry, small vendors who market produce to restaurants, at swap meets and flea markets out of the back of pickups and vans.

Some estimates suggest as much as 20 percent of fresh produce handled in the U.S. is marketed through this ‘underbelly.’

This practice is a liability to growers and shippers and undermines proactive efforts by the industry to develop preventive food safety programs.

Making inspections of tomatoes mandatory on imports as well as the ‘underbelly’ would level the playing field and likely reduce outbreaks like those last summer that cost growers hundreds of millions of dollars.

email: hcline@farmpress.com