NAPLES, Fla. — Food safety was the focus of the opening day of this year’s Joint Tomato Conference.

During a Sept. 6 workshop on food safety training and good agricultural and best management practices, researchers and food safety leaders updated the industry on safe tomato handling and food safety rules.

Discussing his study of strategies to reduce bacterial contamination on tomatoes in the packinghouse, Keith Schneider, an associate professor with the Gainesville-based University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said it wasn’t too long ago that produce wasn’t a major concern of regulators.

“Just seven years ago, 50% of funds went to shellfish,” Schneider said. “Produce wasn’t on their radar. Most research wasn’t geared to produce. It’s a huge push now. We are a beneficiary of those research dollars.”

Florida tomato conference opens with food safety spotlightMartha Roberts, University of Florida consultant and former deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the industry is working to ensure science supports safety rules.

“Regrettably, you’re only one step away from a disaster,” she said. “You know what happened with Salmonella Saintpaul, when it was really peppers. You know what happened with the European outbreak. It was sprouts but it destroyed the Spanish tomato and cucumber industries. You can’t get away from the disasters and accusations but what we can focus on is what we can control.”

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, the conference’s sponsors, thanked growers for participating.

“We appreciate your everyday contribution in the process because food safety is an everyday responsibility,” he said. “Not just when you come to a workshop or when the auditor shows up.

“It is a state of mind and a method of looking at risks and producing safe tomatoes,” Brown said. “As we know from experience, it’s absolutely essential that everyone in this business makes that effort so we can all stay in business and not have that experience we had in 2008.”

The conference runs through Sept. 9.