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Angry Growers Want Tomato Salmonella Warning Lifted, Compensation for Losses

Jul 15, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Tomato growers, who have lost well over $100 million since federal regulators named their products as suspects in a multi-state Salmonella outbreak, want the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to rescind a health alert warning consumers to avoid certain types of tomatoes.  The angry growers also want the federal government to compensate them for their losses.   

Since April, 1,148 people have become ill with Salmonella St. Paul - a rare strain of the bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), illness have been reported in Alabama (2 persons), Arkansas (14), Arizona (52), California (9), Colorado (15), Connecticut (4), Florida (2), Georgia (25), Idaho (6), Illinois (104), Indiana (16), Iowa (2), Kansas (17), Kentucky (1), Louisiana (1), Maine (1), Maryland (32), Massachusetts (26), Michigan (21), Minnesota (19), Mississippi (2), Missouri (17), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (11), New Jersey (12), New Mexico (102), New York (32), North Carolina (14), Ohio (8), Oklahoma (25), Oregon (10), Pennsylvania (12), Rhode Island (3), South Carolina (2), Tennessee (8), Texas (448), Utah (2), Virginia (31), Vermont (2), Washington (17), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (11), and the District of Columbia (1). Four ill persons are reported from Canada; all four appear to have been infected while traveling in the United States.

Last month, the FDA warned consumers to avoid eating  certain raw  red plum, red Roma, or round red tomatoes or any products containing them unless they are known to have come from a geographic area cleared of any connection to the outbreak. Most of the tomatoes affected by the FDA's warning were grown in parts of  Mexico and Florida.

But the FDA has not detected any Salmonella bacteria  in any of the 1700 tomato samples it tested.   And even though the suspect tomatoes were taken off the market in June, hundreds of people have gotten sick, and cases of Salmonella St. Paul are still being reported to the CDC on a daily basis.   Last week, the FDA said it was expanding its Salmonella probe to include other foods, such as raw jalapeno and Serrano peppers, fresh cilantro and fresh basil. Still, the FDA has not altered its tomato warning, but did caution the elderly, infants and those with weakened immune systems to stay away from raw jalapeno and Serrano peppers.

Now angry tomato growers who have had little choice but to watch their crops rot in the fields, have said enough is enough.  Last week, they requested that the FDA lift the Salmonella tomato warning and asked for their losses to be compensated.  According to the Baltimore Sun, industry officials from California and Florida, two of the country's leading tomato producing states, have started talking to members of Congress about getting legislation that would compensate them for losses that could reach $250 million.

But Dr. David Acheson, FDA's associate commissioner for foods, said because people keep getting sick, tomatoes cannot be ruled out as a possible cause of the outbreak.   Acheson said FDA officials are talking about eliminating the list of cleared regions and plan to talk with the CDC about possible steps to clarify any warning to consumers.

But growers disagree, and point to the fact that geographic areas affected by the tomato warning haven't shipped the produce in more than a month. The fact that people are still getting sick, they say, is proof that tomatoes are not behind the illnesses.

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