Tomatoes infected by the tomato brown rugose fruit virus show uneven coloring. ( Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services )

UPDATED: Florida agriculture and industry officials have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to initiate traceback investigations of Mexican tomatoes with the tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV).

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Oct. 9 said that ToBRFV was recently intercepted by state inspectors in packaged Mexican tomatoes in Naples and Gainesville, Fla. The tomatoes have been destroyed, according to the state agriculture department.

“For the past six months, our inspectors have been watching vigilantly for the ToBRFV virus, and are moving swiftly to prevent its introduction in our state,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a news release. “Mexican-grown tomatoes carrying the ToBRFV virus are a serious threat to Florida, the nation’s leading producer of tomatoes and a $262-million industry in our state. We need the USDA to step up, initiate tracebacks to Mexican producers, and fulfill its responsibility to protect American growers and consumers.” 

In response, the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas reported that authorities in the U.S., Mexico and Canada moved months ago to implement programs to limit the spread of the new ToBRFV. The virus, first identified in Israel in 2014, is not a food safety issue, according to an FPAA release.

The FPAA said the “threat is not new” and was identified in a California greenhouse in September 2018 and in Mayin a greenhouse in Ontario, Canada, as well as in Mexico in 2018.

The FPAA said that because of the severe threat that the disease poses to tomatoes and peppers, plant officials in all three nations have instituted programs to identify and eradicate the disease, which can be spread by touch.

FPAA said agriculture authorities and university researchers across North America believe contaminated seeds are a serious concern for transmission for the virus.  

In response to the 2018 finding in Mexico, the country put in place a regulatory seed testing program for tomato and pepper seeds imported into the country, according to the FPAA.

The coordinated public relations messaging from multiple Florida entities suggests there is an effort to use the issue for political gain to reduce imports of Mexican tomatoes and peppers, FPAA said in the release.

“The USDA, (Mexico’s) SENASICA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and other government agencies are well aware of the threat that ToBRFV poses and their regulatory approach is based on sound science and not hyperbole,” Lance Jungmeyer, president of the FPAA, said in the release. “The efforts from the U.S. Mexican, and Canadian governments have been initiated to address this issue.”  

USDA response

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is aware of the virus issue, according to an Oct. 11 statement from the agency.

“We are conducting a scientific pest risk assessment and will determine what action is needed to protect tomato and pepper production in the United States,” according to APHIS.

Tomatoes and peppers are the two major hosts for the virus, which causes yellow spots, wrinkled patches, and lesions on tomatoes, according to Florida’s agricultural department. Symptoms develop within 12 to 18 days of the plant’s infection, according to the release.

The state agency said that retailers who suspect tomatoes in their inventories have ToBRFV infection should report the products to the Division of Plant Industry Helpline at 1-888-397-1517 or [email protected]

The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association urged consumers to buy Florida produce.

“Florida is at high risk for the introduction of harmful invasive plant pests and diseases such as the brown rugose fruit virus found on tomatoes imported from Mexico. The spread of this virus would cause serious economic losses for Florida’s tomato producers, so we appreciate the vigilance of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in detecting it,” Mike Joyner, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said in the release. “We also encourage consumers to support Florida farmers by buying produce labeled with the Fresh From Florida logo.”

A call to action

The Florida Tomato Exchange called on the USDA to immediately suspend imports from operations confirmed to have shipped tomatoes with the virus.

“Such suspension should only be lifted after USDA can confirm that the disease has been 100% eradicated from the operation in question,” according to a news release from the exchange. “USDA should also significantly ramp up inspections for the virus on all imported tomatoes and peppers.”

The FPAA said in their release that Florida officials were using the detection for political purposes.

Because the virus spreads by hand, farm implements and other physical means, the FPAA said the prospect of an infected tomato getting from the grocery store into a U.S. tomato producing field is “minimal.” 
This is why authorities have focused their efforts on eradication at the source.

The FPAA statement said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Fried is using the issue to gain political points, and the release said she is not taking into account the fact that imported tomatoes are not likely to find their way to a Florida tomato field.

Even so, FPAA said Fried is calling for controls that are intended to promote a “Florida monopoly” of the winter tomato market in the U.S.

“If we are to use the logic of disallowing the sale of fruit from places that have plant disease, Florida citrus should not be exported out of the state because of the citrus greening disease (HLB) that decimates citrus crops,” Jungmeyer said in the release.

The reported discovery comes about a month after Mexican tomato growers and the Department of Commerce entered into an agreement suspending an investigation into tomato dumping into the U.S. The agreement sets minimum prices for imports of Mexican tomatoes, ending a 17.56% tariff that had been in place since the Commerce Department withdrew from a agreement in early May.

The new agreement includes an eventual requirement for mandatory quality inspections at the point of entry for most Mexican tomatoes, a provision that importers worry could create border delays.

 

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