Commentary: Government guesswork impacts growers negatively
Food safety is a top priority among California farmers and ranchers. We strive to supply the safest and healthiest products in the world. Farmers are used to dealing with issues like weather, pests, disease, overproduction, water and labor shortages, but recently our nation's fresh market tomato producers were dealt a far bigger blow—a government-created disaster.
On June 3, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning to consumers not to eat fresh red Roma, round red or red plum tomatoes because these tomatoes appeared to be linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul. More than 1,000 people have been sickened by this outbreak, and as a grower I can say this is what we work so hard to prevent.
Even after California tomatoes were ruled out because they weren't being harvested yet, the warning has caused the demand and price of tomatoes to dramatically decline. It's nearly impossible for a producer to get the same price for a 25-pound box as the consumer pays by the pound at the grocery store. The price farmers are getting today doesn't even cover the costs to pick and pack the product. Farmers across the state are plowing up their unharvested fields.
The FDA and the CDC said it was prudent to warn the public about the dangers of consuming tomatoes early on in their investigation in order to prevent more illnesses. They may have a point only if the government is willing to compensate fresh tomato growers who have financially suffered because of the FDA's and CDC's erroneous actions.
In the case of a natural disaster, the government piles on the aid, but will our government bail out tomato producers who have suffered huge financial losses? I doubt it.
Where did the FDA and the CDC go wrong? Early on the government conducted epidemiological surveys of those sickened to discover what foods were eaten the week before they became ill. Those responses were compared to a control group who ate tomatoes but did not get sick. These interviews occurred weeks after the onset of their symptoms to determine what types of tomatoes individuals ate the week before they became ill.
The statistical surveys showed a high probability that tomatoes were the culprit. Unfortunately, the government failed to use all of the investigative tools available. They failed to conduct trace-back of tomatoes eaten by the control group, failed to examine what was in the victims' refrigerators and failed to keep an open mind that their original statistical surveys might be wrong, or just plain faulty, because people's memories fail.
The FDA and the CDC linked tomatoes not only on unsound science, but there was also a preconceived bias that tomatoes must be the source (tomatoes have been associated with salmonella outbreaks in the past). The government should have ruled out all other possibilities before they assumed tomatoes were the source. Not until the beginning of July, months after the first case was identified, is the government looking at other items like cilantro and jalapeno peppers. How many other produce items will be taken off the dinner table by the experts at FDA and CDC? Here is the travesty—as of June 27, more than 1,700 tomato samples have been lab tested and not one sample tested positive for Salmonella Saintpaul.
The FDA now cites they need more funding and greater authority over the produce industry. They also claim that industry needs to be more responsible and improve trace-back capability and become more electronically savvy. What good does giving more funding to these agencies and better trace-back do if the FDA/CDC is blinded by false assumptions, non-scientific evaluations and total ignorance of the produce industry? It seems the government is trying to point the blame on the industry when they should be the one under the public's scrutiny.
As the FDA and CDC continue to search for the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, we are left wondering if, as growers, we will ever be able to restore consumer confidence in our fresh market tomatoes.
(Melanie Horwath is an owner of S&H Farms. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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