By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer
Leaders of the largest U.S. tomato-producing states are meeting with major retail and foodservice buyers to discuss food safety measures they're taking to ensure shipments of safe fresh tomatoes.
Representatives of the Florida and California tomato industries on July 9 announced a program to unite U.S. tomato food safety practices during a "tomato summit" in Orlando, Fla.
The fresh tomato industry's goal is to develop a single science-based food safety program covering the whole supply chain. The program is endorsed by government health agencies, said Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers, which he says represents 90% of the fresh tomatoes grown in California.
"We don't want the focus of food safety to end simply at the grower-shipper level and the efforts we?re undertaking," Beckman said. "We will set standards at the grower-shipper level, but they need to be maintained throughout the system."
The meeting provided the industry the chance to talk about the first steps involved in taking a unified industry approach to starting and verifying good agricultural practices.
Florida tomato leaders during the spring persuaded state lawmakers to pass a mandatory safety program scheduled to go into effect this fall, while California, the second-largest fresh tomato-growing state, has a voluntary plan that requires standards and audits for growers in the California Tomato Farmers cooperative.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Maitland, said the two states' growers and handlers want to persuade other U.S. growers to adopt the proposed standards.
The effort has North American tomato growers and shippers involved, Beckman said. He said a representative from Los Angeles-based Giumarra Cos. attended the Orlando meeting. Other Canadian and Mexican tomato shippers participated in a North American Tomato Trade Work Group meeting in May at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association?s annual conference.
The Ontario, British Columbia, and Mexican grower-shipper participants at the Montreal meeting agreed to move forward on the issue and planned to be a part of the effort as it progresses, he said.
"We don't have the authority to get into other people's business," Brown said. "When there's a tomato food safety problem, it affects all growers and parties involved. It is imperative that we bring together a common platform to deal with this problem."
The tomato industry hopes to start and maintain standards through a document that expands on Food and Drug Administration produce safety guidance. The publication, being constructed through the North American Tomato Trade Work Group, which represents field- and greenhouse-grown tomato growers, is expected to be completed within a year, Brown said.
Those standards are being segmented into modules that would apply to specific parts of the industry, he said.
The Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association organized the meeting.
"We wanted to bring everyone together," said David Gombas, United Fresh's senior vice president of food safety and technology. "It may not change what they're working on, but all of the customers I talked with said they thought the meeting went in the right direction."
Bill Pool, manager of agricultural production and research for Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., has been involved in the tomato food safety effort as well as food safety pushes in lettuce and melons.
"I think the efforts that are under way by tomato growers are very positive," Pool said. "The things that are being done that will further enhance the safety of produce certainly speaks well for everyone in the business to include the final end-users. The more you have people in all phases of the industry talking to each other, sharing information and working on common goals is a great thing and what ought to be happening."
Attendees included leaders of foodservice and retail operations McDonald's Corp., Oak Brook, Ill.; Yum! Brands Inc., Louisville, Ky.; Diversified Restaurant Systems, San Diego; Club Chef Inc., Covington, Ky.; Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y.; and Salinas, Calif.-based Fresh Express Inc. and Taylor Farms.