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Friday, July 25, 2008

Tomato Industry Seeks Compensation

The Wall Street Journal reports that the tomato industry has introduced legislation that would give tomato growers and shippers $100 million to compensate for losses they incurred as a result of the salmonella outbreak.  Jane Zhang and Lauren Etter write,

Tomato_industryFederal health officials haven't cleared tomatoes as a cause of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 1,270 nationwide, but the tomato industry has -- and it is asking taxpayers to compensate them for their loss.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Democrat from Florida, a big tomato producer in the U.S., introduced legislation Wednesday night that would give the nation's tomato growers and shippers $100 million to compensate for losses they incurred in the outbreak. The Agriculture Department would decide who qualifies, much like the way disaster assistance is carried out.

At the same time, Congress has scheduled at least three hearings next week on the salmonella outbreak and why it took so long to figure out what caused it.

The sought-after amount is based on an estimate from Florida growers and includes crops abandoned in the field, products thrown out by retailers and tomatoes forced to be sold as low as $5 a box, compared with as much as $20 in a normal market, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative of tomato farmers. The Agriculture Department hasn't released a firm estimate of the cost to farmers or distributors.

On June 7, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers against eating certain types of raw tomatoes, suspected of carrying the virulent Saintpaul strain of salmonella. Many restaurants dumped their supplies of tomatoes, and many consumers shunned them. But the number of cases skyrocketed, and tests seeking salmonella on tomatoes all turned out negative.

This week, the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced they had discovered a single jalapeño pepper tainted with the Saintpaul strain in a Texas distribution center. Last week, the FDA lifted its warning on tomatoes, but the CDC held out the possibility tomatoes had caused earlier cases.

"In this particular case, there is no smoking gun," said Rep. Mahoney. "What we have is losses." He said he wasn't "blaming the FDA for the choices they make, but there are consequences to those choices."

Michael Herndon, an FDA spokesman, said, "FDA's actions are based on public health. Congressional efforts to improve food safety are something FDA always supports."

Consumer advocates oppose the bill. Sarah Klein, a staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the food-industry lobby over the years has weakened federal food-safety oversight, and consumers shouldn't foot the bill now. "We'd like to see the industry focusing on how to prevent these outbreaks for the future to protect consumers and their bottom line," she said.

Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association, said the fresh-produce industry has sought tougher FDA regulation of tomatoes and other items. In recent years, Florida tomato growers and California leafy-green growers pushed through tougher measures in their own states, including mandatory inspections and training.

But the industry disagrees on who should benefit from the bill. Mr. Mahoney said it covers farmers and shippers, which were hit the hardest by the FDA warning. Mr. Stenzel, said it also should cover those further up the supply chain, such as packers and repackers, who suffered damages, too.

It is uncertain whether the bill will pass Congress. There isn't similar legislation in the Senate, and there is little time for lawmakers to act before the November election. Last year, spinach growers unsuccessfully pushed a similar measure to compensate for losses after the government's 2006 recall of fresh spinach after an outbreak of E. coli.

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