(July 18, 2:06 p.m.) As the Food and Drug Administration focused its salmonella investigation on other items, Florida and California tomato growers were working to persuade Congress to provide industry compensation and hold hearings on how authorities handled tomatoes.

Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., is requesting congressional hearings on the matter while Florida’s growers and packers are meeting with congressional aides to seek compensation for losses that could exceed $300 million in Florida alone.

Reggie Brown, vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland, said the industry has been trying to assemble a realistic assessment of the losses Florida and other tomato growers suffered after prices collapsed following an FDA consumer warning. He wasn’t able to say how much the industry would request.

Brown said growers and packers have been talking with congressional aides and others since early June. Brown said compensation could involve funds for growers as well as money for a consumer advertising campaign designed to persuade consumers to return tomatoes to their shopping carts.

Because there’s been no recall triggered by the FDA’s advisories, Brown doubted that grower-shippers can recoup any losses through their insurance policies. The only likely avenue, he said, is through a federal appropriations process.

He said the tomato exchange is trying to assess the degree of injury and plans to explore all avenues of potential compensation with Florida’s congressional delegation.

“We are looking for ways to try to find money to get the ball rolling again,” Brown said. “This is an absolute nightmare that’s turning into a double nightmare because we’re now seeding the crop for next year. Most (growers) are moving forward, but there is a great degree of concern with the uncertainty of this situation.”

Western Growers has called for a Congressional investigation of how the FDA handled the outbreak.

In a July 2 letter to leaders of the U.S. House of Representative’s Agricultural Committee, Western Growers president Tom Nassif said the federal government should investigate compensation for growers, packers and shippers, and determine ways the government can help protect consumers and avoid harming parts of the produce industry.

“Congress must investigate this matter so that together we can identify ways to make the innocent tomato growers, packers and shippers whole, and on a larger scale, protect the produce industry from this kind of market upheaval,” Nassif wrote. “The continued viability of our nation’s produce farmers could depend on it.”

Florida Farmers Inc., a Lake Worth-based advocacy group for winter vegetable growers July 16 announced that growers in Gadsen County, in the Quincy, Fla., growing region, have joined the group in asking for accountability from the federal government.

Luis Rodriguez, trade adviser for Florida Farmers, said the organization is lining up congressional support.

He said the group hopes it can help expedite compensation requests because of pending disaster aid for Midwestern program crop farmers that suffered extensive flood damage.

“With the huge amounts of money going in Iowa, Indiana, and all those states that flooded, there will be all kinds of additional supplemental bills,” Rodriguez said. “We can easily tack on to one of those. When you have a $4 (billion) to $6 billion bill, our little $100 (million) to $200-million thing can ride on those a lot cheaper and easier than to go alone with stand-alone legislation, which would be lengthier and more difficult to pass.”

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., said the Florida tomato industry plans to use the compensation — if it materializes — to help persuade consumers that tomatoes are safe to eat.

“We are working through Congress and the governmental entities to try to figure a way to take care of this problem,” Spencer said. “Through this whole process, we have bent over backwards to cooperate. We don’t want to take an adversarial position. We want to work together. We feel the FDA has made a major mistake. We’re hoping they can learn from it and we can avoid this type of panic being created again in the future.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson supports compensating growers for their losses.

“It appears clear to us the investigation is moving away from tomatoes and away from Florida,” said Terrance McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee. “ … If (the cause) winds up being something other than Florida tomatoes, the commissioner thinks Florida growers may have been unfairly painted with the same brush and received an underserved economic jolt.”