By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

Legislative action has delayed the Florida tomato industry's efforts to create a mandatory statewide food safety program.

Florida's growers and packers for three years have been working to require state inspections of tomato farms and packinghouses.

The Florida Senate on March 22 unanimously passed a general housekeeping bill for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The bill included language requiring the department to inspect tomato growing and packing operations.

But after senators sent the bill to the Florida House of Representatives, House members during floor debate added a nonrelated agricultural amendment.

The Senate objected to the amendment and returned the bill to the House.

The 2007 House legislative session was scheduled to end May 4. That had Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange and Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, concerned during the final days of the session.

"We thought it would be a done deal," he said May 1. "Now it's back to the waiting."

Lawmakers, however, don't normally finish most things until the last hours of the session, Brown said.

If lawmakers pass the bill and the governor signs it, the department would then add other food safety rules by administrative rule making, Brown said.

PROGRESSIVE EFFORT

Brown said the effort had Florida's tomato industry ahead of other U.S. produce groups.

"We have been further along in our process than most other commodities," Brown said. "The leafy greens (group) unfortunately fell under extreme pressure due to the spinach crisis. It leapfrogged into a state marketing order process. But we will be the country's first statewide commoditywide food safety program. Ours will be a mandatory program, not a voluntary one or a self-agreed program like a cooperative."

Tony DiMare, Florida Tomato Exchange president and vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla., said the program, if passed into law as expected, should become an industry-setting effort.

"I can't think of any other commodity group that has developed their own food safety program and have it mandated and policed by the state department of agriculture," he said.