By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

Calling it the first program of its kind, Florida's Agriculture Commissioner lauded passage of a comprehensive food safety program to develop and enforce regulations for the state?s tomato industry.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist May 25 signed a bill into law providing the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services the authority to oversee the program.

"We will do everything we can to prove to the world that we're doing the best with food safety we can on products grown in Florida," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said.

The program -- developed and pushed by industry members in the largest fresh-market tomato producing state -- goes beyond the voluntary good agricultural practices and best management practices that most Florida growers and packers follow.

The department would require packinghouse inspections and make growers and handlers adhere to specific food safety rules such as testing irrigation water as well as installation of portable worker toilets and hand-washing facilities.

Bronson said the department plans to publish the rules during the summer, followed by a 60- to 90-day public comment period. He said he wants the rules in place during the fall to catch the bulk of Florida's tomato production.

Tomato picking typically begins in September in the Quincy area of northern Florida and moves into the Palmetto-Ruskin region in mid-October before heading to south Florida by November.

Martha Roberts, consultant, part-time faculty at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and former agriculture department deputy commissioner, said the tomato industry was working with the agency to adopt the regulations.

"They (the tomato industry) saw the need to ensure there was some regulatory scrutiny and verification of what they were doing," she said. "I applaud them because they have the first such regulatory program in the country for a produce item."