June 10, 2008 / 8:07 PM / 11 years ago

North America tomato industry reeling-growers

(Updates with FDA clearing Florida tomatoes)

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI, June 10 (Reuters) - Tomato growers in Florida, California and Mexico are having trouble selling their crops as U.S. regulators hunt the source of a salmonella outbreak linked to certain tomato varieties, growers said on Tuesday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday added parts of Florida, the No. 1 U.S. tomato producer, to its cleared list of states not associated with the outbreak.

But it was unclear whether the move came in time to salvage $40 million worth of Florida tomatoes that an industry official said were in danger of rotting after picking and packing were halted on Saturday.

"The stuff that should have been harvested over the weekend won’t survive more than another day or so. The stuff we have in storage is getting riper every minute and at some point it will have to be disposed of," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

The FDA warned U.S. consumers on Saturday that the outbreak was linked to eating certain raw red plum, red Roma, and red round tomatoes, and products containing those tomatoes.

Major restaurant and grocery chains stopped selling those varieties, and some stopped selling all raw tomatoes entirely.

California was already on the FDA’s cleared list, but some supermarkets still rejected tomatoes from that state, which is the No. 2 U.S. producer with $400 million in annual sales.

"The reality is that the entire tomato industry is being impacted," said Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers. "It wasn’t really clear that round and Romas from California are safe to eat. That’s part of the problem."

U.S. growers produced $1.28 billion worth of tomatoes last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florida produces an annual crop valued at $500 million to $700 million, and supplies more than 90 percent of the nation’s tomatoes this time of year, Brown said.

The FDA has said that it is safe to eat cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached but those account for only a tiny portion of the industry.

The FDA has said it does not know where the contaminated tomatoes originated. The infections have struck most often in New Mexico and Texas.

The FDA said there had been 167 reported cases as of Tuesday, including at least 23 hospitalizations, related to the outbreak since mid-April. The infections were caused by Salmonella Saintpaul, an uncommon type of the bacteria.

Salmonella bacteria are frequently responsible for food-borne illnesses. Symptoms generally appear within 12 to 72 hours after eating infected food and include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

With the tainted spinach scare of 2006 still fresh in their minds, buyers and consumers were unwilling to take chances, growers said. Three people died and more than 200 were sickened by eating spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Mexican growers, who produce 84 percent of the tomatoes imported by the United States, were also feeling the pain.

"U.S. consumers have started to reject orders that have already been promised or sent and it is causing a lot of damage to producers," said Mario Robles, who directs the investigation arm of the vegetable association in the state of Sinaloa.

Mexico sends nearly 700,000 tonnes of tomatoes a year to the United States in a business worth $900 million, according to a Mexican vegetable exporters association.

Exports of Mexican agricultural products soared after the United States, Canada and Mexico lifted all tariff barriers under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

But the benefits can easily be wiped out by a sanitary scare like the one in 2000, when the FDA identified a strain of salmonella in Mexican melons and banned their import.

That cut the $200 million annual export business down to around $3 million, said Robles, and Mexican growers fear the same could happen to tomatoes. (Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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