MANATEE — The steady rhythm of packing house machinery at West Coast Tomato in Palmetto suddenly stopped last summer when inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration descended on the business searching for traces of salmonella.
The tense mood felt by workers at the packing house mirrored the frustrations of growers all over Florida whose produce was suspected in the salmonella outbreak.
Tomatoes rotted on the vines. Boxes of packaged fruit went bad. Customers in food service stopped serving the produce, fearing it was tainted with the bacteria.
In the weeks and months to follow, growers continued to tally millions of dollars lost as a result of the scare, while the real culprit slipped past the border and onto America’s dinner plate.
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More than 1,300 people became ill from the outbreak, caused by salmonella linked to irrigation water and peppers grown on farms in Mexico. The results of the investigation shed light on a dangerous reality: Imported produce poses a significant risk to America’s food supply.
A report recently released by Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy and education group, revealed that in the past 15 years, the amount of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables imported into the United States has more than doubled. From the early 1990s to 2007, imports grew from 17 billion pounds to 40 billion pounds.
Less than 1 percent of imported produce is inspected by the federal government, but the produce is more than three times likely to contain bacteria such as salmonella, the report found.
Since the floodgates have opened to more foreign produce, America’s farmers have faced intense challenges to compete in a global market amid tougher environmental standards, more expensive labor, increased production costs and high food-safety standards.
When inspectors entered the packing house of West Coast Tomato, from which 4.5 million boxes of tomatoes are shipped every year, the mood was tense because of what was at stake, said John Darling, systems operator at the packing house.
“You can prepare for a test as much as you want, but when test day comes, there’s a bit of anxiety that comes with it,” he said.
The Florida tomato industry labored over improved safety standards to avoid suffering a fate like the spinach industry, which has yet to bounce back from the e. Coli scare in 2006.
About four years ago, Florida growers came together in an unprecedented move to regulate themselves and strengthen food safety in the industry. The food safety rules, mandated by the state of Florida and enforced by the commissioner of Agriculture, became mandatory July 1. Many of the food safety measures were already practiced by individual growers and even enforced by various agencies for the past 15 years, but the industry did not have uniform measures. The goal was to identify any pitfalls in the system, correct them and improve them with new policies.
“We cannot have anybody that’s not doing the same thing you’re doing, packing and shipping, and not complying with the same rules,” said Tony DiMare of DiMare Farms. Early on in the latest salmonella scare, DiMare suspected the produce came from Mexico.
So much at stake
Pathogens like salmonella are common, but they have to be minimized with food safety measures to prevent outbreaks.
“Just because we have this rule does not guarantee that you’re not going to have issues, because there are a lot of reasons that outbreaks occur,” DiMare said.
The lingering affects of diminished consumer confidence are evident across the country. Tomato sales and movement at the distribution and repacking levels are down 15 to 20 percent from last year.
DiMare says several agencies are at fault for not communicating and quickly identifying the source of the outbreak, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.
“They have been receptive. They recognize there were a lot of fallacies, a lot of procedure that could have been better,” DiMare said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this country needs to look at imports and the safety of the food products coming into this country.”
An estimated $2 trillion worth of products enter the United States from more than 150 countries and territories around the world each year. To help protect the public and regulate food safety on imports coming into the United States, the FDA launched the Beyond Our Borders Initiative.
Recognizing the lax oversight in foreign countries to provide safe products, the FDA plans to increase collaboration with those countries, aid in technical assistance to foreign regulators and industries and establish a presence in other countries.
Last month, the FDA opened its first overseas office in China with plans to open more offices in India, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, according to an FDA Web site. In the past five years, the number of FDA agreements with regulatory systems on foreign soil has more than doubled.
Everything at a cost
The food safety standards take into account irrigation practices, personal hygiene, field conditions, water quality, cleanliness on the farm and the packing house, said Manatee County grower Gary Reeder.
“It cost money, but we did this to protect our industry before it was mandated. We think we’re ahead of the curve,” he said.
Fertilizer costs triple what it did two years ago and only recently have farmers gotten a reprieve from lower fuel prices. Another challenge that threatens tomato supply is Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations for pesticide and fumigant use. Proposed buffer zones, in some cases up to hundreds of feet, are required between fumigated fields and communities. Up to 35 percent of his farm in Duette will be off limits under the proposed regulations, Reeder said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of things we have to deal with,” Reeder said. “It’s always been that way.”
About 27,000 acres of vegetables are in production in Manatee County with a $373 million economic impact. Forty percent of all tomatoes grown in Florida are from Manatee County.
There has been a general decline in tomato acreage in Florida the last couple of decades, with significantly fewer tomato farmers than there were in the early 1980s, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.
In the tomato industry, prices are suppressed by imports coming into the country from Mexico in the summer and Canada in the winter, he said.
From 1993 to 2007, tomato imports into the United States have increased from 922.4 million pounds in 1993 to 2.3 billion pounds in 2007. The average American consumed 8 pounds of imported tomatoes in 2007, according to Food & Water Watch.
After the salmonella scare, retail stores scaled back on stocking field-grown tomatoes, making way for tomatoes grown in greenhouses to fill the shelves.
“It’s a struggle from us to get market share back because of the shift that took place during the salmonella outbreak in the retail marketplace around the country,” Brown said.
Consumer confidence in American produce is vital in sustaining the tomato industry, which is a safe commodity.
“If the country truly cares how their food is being produced, they should buy American produce in every case they can because if they don’t, it’s not an industry that will be sustained over the long haul,” Brown said. “Standing in line to buy gasoline is one thing, but what if we have to stand in line to buy food?”
Knowing your food’s origin
Manatee County growers worked with the Manatee Farm Bureau to lobby for country of origin labeling, which was passed in the 2008 Farm Bill. While Florida has enforced mandatory country-of-origin labeling on imported produce since 1979, the new federal legislation, which was effective Sept. 30, made it mandatory nationwide for meats and fresh produce to be labeled.
“The American public needs to know where their food is coming from,” Reeder said. “America, Florida and Manatee County produce the safest commodity in the world.”
While the country-of-origin labeling mandates labeling for fresh produce and meats, the legislation has loopholes that present risks to the American public. Processed foods, including canned peanuts, almost all pork products and canned fruits and vegetables will be exempt from country-of-origin labeling, said Patrick Woodall, senior policy analyst for Food & Water Watch.
China, which has made news with its tainted products from lead paint on toys to poison toothpaste and melamine-laced milk powder, is the No. 1 foreign source of canned peaches, accounting for about 11 percent of America’s consumption of canned peaches. Last year, about 118.8 million pounds of canned peaches were imported from China.
“Many producers and food companies live in a kind of Wild West capitalism,” Woodall said. “They cut corners and maximize profits.”
But the safety of American consumers is a high price to pay for trade agreements that benefit a tiny handful of big businesses. America really needs to rethink the idea of the globalized food supply, which has not been good for consumers or American farmers, Woodall said.
Citrus imports surge
Imports of fresh oranges rose from 22.8 million pounds in 1993 and to 247.2 million pounds in 2007, just shy of a tenfold increase, according to Food & Water Watch.
The upsurge in citrus imports came after Florida citrus supply decreased with the hurricanes in 2004 and the battle with canker.
Prior to hurricanes in 2003-04, Florida orange juice accounted for about 94 percent of total U.S. domestic availability of orange juice. In 2006-07, the percentage dropped to 70 percent, according to the Florida Department of Citrus reference book.
Citrus growers’ most recent formidable foe has been citrus greening, which is spread by insects called psyllids.
“There are psyllids in all groves at some level. The fight right now is to manage it,” said Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms.
Psyllids began to show up about five or six years ago on the farm, but greening was not evident until this year. Previously, the farm had to spray for pests about three times a year. Now, it’s about 10 times a year, said Scott Schuyler, production manager for citrus at SMR Farms.
As pesticides become more specialized, they become safer, but they also have a downside. They are more expensive and require more volume to produce the desired results. It’s important to spray for the pests at the time of a tree’s new growth.
“Numerous insecticides do a good job of killing the psyllid. It’s just an issue of timing of application,” he said.
The 2008 Farm Bill was a step in the right direction for the industry, allowing for the first time money to be set aside for research for specialty crops.
“There are pots of money and we’re encouraged by that,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual. “We’re pretty confident with all the research projects going on we’ll get a portion of that money.”
Domestic sources battle back
At the forefront of the battle to get funding for research has been communicating the vital role the Florida citrus industry has in supplying the nation with a sustainable safe, food supply.
“We’re a domestic source of food. To us and to food producers, that’s a security issue. Can you get safe, American grown food?” he said.
Agriculture understands the essential nature of a domestic supply of food, he said.
“We’re a large country, so there’s always going to be a need for imports to supplement the domestic producers, but certainly there has got to be a healthy mix of domestically grown food and imported food. We certainly think that domestically grown food needs to be a larger chunk of that,” he said.
Before the North American Free Trade Agreement became effective in 1994, about 8 percent of imported produce was inspected compared to less than 1 percent now, said Woodall. The FDA was not prepared to handle the increased volume of imports brought on by free trade agreements.
Over a 10-year period, from 1997 to 2006, there were 164 billion pounds of produce imported into the United States and just 4,876 shipments were inspected, indicating a low level of oversight at the border, he said.
About 80 percent of imported produce that the FDA deems safe doesn’t get inspected. The other 20 percent undergoes scrutiny on a computer screen for roughly 45 seconds to check for rotten produce, salmonella and any other problems.
“It’s an overwhelming task for the FDA and they are not up to it; they are still mired in a structure that doesn’t to take into account a significant hurdle of a deluge of imported product,” he said.
People eat fresh fruit and vegetables to be healthy, but when it turns out that the imported produce they are consuming contains higher levels of pesticides, people really don’t know what they are eating, he said.
“We want to make it possible for producers in America to make a living selling safe food that Americans want to eat,” Woodall said.