Growers Want FDA to Clear Florida Tomatoes in Salmonella Scare

Florida tomato growers have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to declare there is no salmonella in the state's tomato crops.

The salmonella outbreak began in April, sickening more than 1,000 people in the United States, but the FDA has yet to prove a tomato link. The agency has since expanded its investigation to fresh cilantro, jalapenos and Serrano peppers.

The state Tomato Growers Exchange sent the FDA a letter Wednesday requesting that all Florida tomatoes be listed on the FDA's cleared list. Regulators have approved tomatoes from 19 Florida counties, but that excludes a third of the major growing areas for the nation's largest producer of the bedeviled fruit.

"These counties have now been out of production for well over two months," wrote Reggie Brown, head of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. "It is virtually impossible for tomatoes from those counties to be associated with illnesses reported in June or July."

FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said she had not seen the letter, but the agency hasn't ruled out tomatoes as a suspect.

"The FDA is a regulatory agency," she wrote in an e-mail. "As such, its responsibility is to assure the safety and wholesomeness of the foods Americans eat."

Growers in Florida, which produces nearly half the country's fresh tomato supply, now face a tough decision over whether to replant next season's crops, Brown said. Even worse, he said, is a lasting image problem caused by the fruit's rapid expulsion from menus and grocery store shelves.

"The real injury to the tomato industry is much, much broader than the production income losses here in Florida," Brown said.

Officials were still trying to estimate losses for the $600 million to $700 million annual Florida industry, he said.