(July 18, UPDATED COVERAGE) The Food and Drug Administration has lifted its consumer advisory for tomatoes, but it was unclear how quickly the category will rebound from the affects of a product warning that had been in place for more than a month.

“It doesn’t restore market confidence,” said Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, Fla. “When you lose consumers, a portion never come back. Does this make me a little more confident for the fall season? Yes.”

A consumer advisory for jalapeno and serrano peppers, issued July 9, advisory remains in place.

David Acheson, FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said July 17 that investigators were in Mexico looking at a pepper packinghouse.

Traceback previously had led investigators to tomato farms June 20 in Mexico and Florida.

Acheson said tomatoes had not been absolved in its investigation, but the agency lifted its tomato advisory because the tomato farms in question are no longer harvesting, and investigators did not find evidence of contamination in the tomato supply chain.

“We’re telling people that tomatoes now in the market and in stores — domestic and imported — are OK,” Acheson said.

A mid-June consumer poll by the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association indicated that 8% of shoppers surveyed would never buy tomatoes again.

“I think it will take some time for the market to recover,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland. “I don’t know how long it will take to get that 8% back.”

Brown said July 17 it was critical for FDA to lift the tomato advisory because his members already are seeding tomatoes for the fall crop. He said growers will begin transplanting tomatoes in the fields by the end of July.

Tomato retail sales plummeted 17% in June, according to The Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., and some jalapeno pepper shippers fear their product is suffering a similar fate in July.

The U.S. market for tomatoes staggered in June. The Perishables Group reported movement of field-grown roma and red, round tomatoes — varieties implicated by FDA in the outbreak — dropped nearly 50% in June.

For the four-week period ending June 28, data collected nationwide from 15,000 traditional supermarkets showed volume of field-grown roma and red, round tomatoes decreased 46.1%, while dollar sales dropped 36.2%.

Dollar sales in the overall tomato category fell 5.4% to $136.3 million. Not-implicated varieties — including grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine — actually increased 3.4% in volume and 8% in dollar sales.

Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers cooperative, said July 17 that there are signs of improvement in the market.

“There’s interest in promoting,” he said. “There’s less attention to signage and more traditional merchandising. The question remains whether the consumer is ready to come back and buy.”

The FDA’s announcement came three days after officials from that agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met with representatives of PMA; Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association; Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas; Texas Produce Association, Mission; National Restaurant Association and the Food Marketing Institute.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for PMA, said the meeting was not about the tomato advisory but rather an exchange of information and chance for both sides to ask questions. She said another meeting between industry and public health officials is anticipated, but no date had been set as of July 17.

Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, said July 17 that the outbreak is ongoing, but it appears to have reached a plateau June 10.

Tauxe said there have been 1,220 reported illnesses and 224 known hospitalizations. The onset date of the most recent reported illness was July 4.