By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

Leaders of the Florida and California tomato growers groups are joining forces to try to ensure safe shipments of fresh tomatoes.

Representatives of the Florida Tomato Exchange and the California Tomato Farmers on July 9 announced a program to unite U.S. tomato food safety practices during a "tomato summit" in Orlando, Fla. Representatives from grower-shippers, foodservice operators, retailers and wholesalers attended, including McDonald's USA, Yum! Brands Inc. and Subway Restaurants.

"A single food safety program based on sound science and endorsed by government health agencies is the fresh tomato industry's ultimate goal," Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno, Calif.-based California group said in a news release. "We are also urging the distribution side to utilize best management practices when handling our products."

The meeting provided the tomato growers, retailers and foodservice operators the chance to talk about the first steps involved in a unified industry approach to starting and verifying good agricultural practices for safe shipments of fresh tomatoes, the release stated.

Florida and California growers have been working to improve and define standards, determine audit criteria and support additional research, according to the release. Both states have worked closely with the Food and Drug Administration and state health agency officials about their industry's food safety efforts, it said.

The growers, under the direction of the North American Tomato Trade Work Group, have also created an industry task force to help verify that all U.S. tomato growing regions follow similar food safety guidelines. The broadened approach should have the industry reviewing practices for growers, shippers, repackers, foodservice and retail operators and fresh-cut processors, the release said.

"The California and Florida tomato industries have worked together for years to ensure both growing areas are in sync when it comes to the development and adoption of scientifically based food safety practices," Reggie Brown, vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said in the news release. "Together, our two regions produce over 80% of all fresh tomatoes grown in the U.S. It is very important the issue of food safety be addressed uniformly in both regions for the benefit of consumers and the trade and we are doing that."

The meeting was organized by the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.