State Politics

Senate passes Florida-tomato safety bill

MANATEE — Local tomato growers are cheering a bill that passed in the Florida Senate on Tuesday that is designed to ensure the safety of Florida-grown tomatoes, following a salmonella scare two years ago.

The measure is another in a series of industry and regulators’ efforts designed to set minimum food safety standards, and authorize the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to inspect tomato farms, greenhouses and packing facilities, according to Craig Meyer, the department’s deputy commissioner.

The bill will add enforcement powers and legally “fine-tune” what has come before, Meyer said, noting that over the past few years, Florida’s comprehensive program has surpassed those in other states.

“We are the leader in this field,” he said Tuesday in discussing the effect of the bill and other measures Florida has adopted.

In 2008, a federal investigation of a salmonella outbreak initially focused on tomatoes. Eventually, officials blamed Mexican jalapeno peppers, but the case dragged on so long, local tomato producers were hurt financially even though not a single Florida tomato was found to be contaminated.

The bill, Senate Bill 350, passed 35-1, and now goes to the House, where a similar measure, House Bill 69, awaits floor action, and is expected to pass, officials said.

Florida has about 32,400 planted acres of tomatoes, with 11,200 of those in Manatee County, according to Liz Compton, the department’s public information director.

Tomato farmers favor the bill because it sets standards that would apply to everyone who grows, distributes or handles tomatoes, they said.

“The bill enhances what we as a county and others have been practicing for quite a few years,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Ruskin Inc., with about 5,000 acres devoted to tomatoes in Manatee County and a packing operation in Hillsborough County.

It would mandate what local growers have already done collectively, and make sure everyone else is in compliance and following the same guidelines, he said.

“Unless you have consistent compliance across all producers, whether domestic or foreign, you’ll have gaps in the system,” he said.

Each tomato business pays a flat inspection fee of $100 annually that goes toward administrative costs, officials said.

“We’ve got to have it in place to protect the industry,” said Billy Heller Jr., chief executive officer for Palmetto’s Pacific Tomato Growers, which produces tomatoes on hundreds of acres in Manatee County, as well as in Collier County, southern Georgia and Virginia.

“The same rules must apply to everyone,” said Heller. “Food safety is, we’re kind of like doctors: The Hippocratic oath is, ‘First, do no harm.’ We eat tomatoes, our families eat tomatoes, our employees eat tomatoes.

“Food safety is certainly, if not our No. 1 priority, it’s No. 1A or 1B or something,” he said.

The bill has drawn wide support statewide because “it’s the right thing to do,” and will help Florida guarantee that its produce is safe, said Butch Calhoun, director of government affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, based in Maitland.

In the event of another scare like the salmonella episode, Florida tomato farmers will have inspection data to prove their products have been grown and handled under strict food safety standards, he said.

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