MANATEE — Last year’s salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,300 people around the country, and Florida tomato growers took a major economic hit despite having some of the industry’s most stringent food safety standards.
Now, a Florida lawmaker has proposed new legislation that would require similar safeguards for other Florida crops.
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, recently wrote in his constituent newsletter that his proposed legislation would have a “nominal economic impact” to farmers to take additional new steps.
“Further, we really cannot put a price on how much we save by avoiding another economic hit as we experienced with the tomato scare,” Baker wrote.
The salmonella outbreak was finally traced to peppers grown in Mexico, but not before Florida tomato growers had lost millions of dollars in sales.
Baker’s bill also addresses a communication gap between government officials. While state agencies did their job, “federal officials dropped the ball,” Baker wrote.
Senate Bill 2098, the Farm to Fork Food Safety Act, would transfer and reassign duties relating to food service safety to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
When the federal government contacts the state with a food safety issue, the lines of communication would be clear with a single point of contact, Baker said Thursday.
Terry McElroy, a spokesman with the Florida Department of Agriculture, said his department has not fully analyzed the bill and doesn’t have a point of view on its provisions.
Tomato growers imposed stringent food safety rules on themselves in order to avoid problems that have afflicted California spinach growers and the peanut industry in Georgia. Those rules were in place and working prior to the 2008 salmonella scare.
“They wanted to get more regulation imposed on themselves so that they could demonstrate they have a wonderful and safe product from the farm to the grocery story,” McElroy said.
The tomato food safety standards cover everything from irrigation practices, to worker hygiene, field conditions, water quality and cleanliness on the farm and in the packing house.
Baker has more than a passing interest in farm issues, having declared his intention to run for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, where incumbent Charles Bronson can not serve again because of term limits.
The Herald called the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association several times for comment Thursday, but no spokesperson was available to discuss the new bill.
Baker said he met earlier Thursday with officials from the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, who expressed concern about widely varying rules in 50 different states.
“They would like to see a national standard,” Baker said.
Ultimately, Baker said he would like Florida produce to carry a bar code that would allow it to be traced back to where it was grown and packaged.
Edward Angrisani, a partner at Manatee tomato grower Taylor and Fulton, said that local growers pioneered food safety practices to ensure consumer safety, but that foreign growers don’t have to abide by the same rules.
“It’s adding costs to American producers,” he said, and making it more difficult for them to compete.
“It seems to be the thing that is on the tip of every tongue,” Angrisani said of food safety. “We did it because that’s what needed to be done. If we’re trying to protect the American consumer, the rules have to apply to more than just the food produced in the United States.”