Tomato growers push for FDA compensation

WASHINGTON -- Tomato growers can thump the Food and Drug Administration next week, but their try for federal funds might be a long shot.

Two congressional hearings will enable California and Florida growers to bash the FDA's investigation into a recent salmonella outbreak. Regulators initially raised warning flags about tomatoes, costing farmers a bundle before suspicions turned to jalapeño peppers. On Friday, the FDA narrowed its focus to Mexican-grown jalapeños, clearing the U.S. crop.

"Clearly, the FDA has done a very poor job at tracking this outbreak," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "They blamed the wrong industry."

Cardoza is chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, one of two House panels convening food safety hearings next week. The other panel, an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, recently sent investigators to the Central Valley to delve into the problem.

Four Florida lawmakers -- Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Reps. Adam Putnam and Vern Buchanan -- have introduced legislation compensating tomato growers and packers nationwide for their losses during the latest salmonella scare. The Florida Tomato Exchange puts the losses at $100 million.

Few doubt that the FDA's warnings hurt business. California tomato exports to Canada have dropped by one third, and retail tomato sales from San Diego to Seattle were down at least 40 percent in June, according to Ed Beckman of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers.

"The FDA's warning about tomatoes devastated the ... industry," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, R-Fla. "We need to ensure that all impacted tomato growers and packers are compensated."

Politically alluring for rural lawmakers, the compensation proposal nonetheless faces several practical hurdles.

One problem is financial. The ink is barely dry on a $296 billion farm bill that is supposed to cover growers for the next five years. The farm bill, enacted over President Bush's veto, includes special disaster relief provisions. A tomato compensation package would add to the cost of what's already a record- setting bill.

Another problem is the effect a compensation program would have on food safety regulators. Extracting what could be interpreted as a $100 million fine from the federal government for issuing a food safety warning that was based on the best information available could send a chilling signal, some fear.

"The problem with that is, next time, you might have a situation where the FDA is slower to respond," Cardoza said.

The FDA issued a nationwide warning June 7 against eating several types of raw tomatoes. It removed the tomato warning July 17 and declared instead that raw jalapeño and raw serrano peppers "may be linked" to salmonella. On Monday, regulators said they had found a contaminated Mexican-grown pepper at a produce distribution center in McAllen, Texas.

"The first scientific indication showed a very clear association with tomatoes," FDA Associate Commissioner David Acheson stressed Monday. "And there is nothing to indicate that that association was incorrect or inappropriate. (But) as the outbreak has progressed ... jalapeño and serrano peppers have become more clearly implicated."

Beckman said the California and Florida tomato industries would benefit if strict standards applied there were extended nationwide. The FDA says it first needs authorization from Congress to impose a nationwide mandate.

Cardoza's subcommittee will conduct its hearing Wednesday, focusing on the challenges of tracking food contamination back to its source. The House oversight and investigations subcommittee hearing will be Thursday.