The End of the Tomato As We Know It?

visualdensityFlickr Once your fresh produce starts coming pre-wrapped in plastic, the jig is probably up. We may be in the last days of picking out a tomato from a luscious pile of fruit. Just as backyard BBQ season began, we were told not to eat tomatoes. Hundreds of Americans are sick and government regulators haven’t a clue where the salmonella came from. If you ask my kids, it’s no big loss.

Economic Effects of Bacteria

So far the damage to the food industry is estimated at over $100 million. So says the National Restaurant Association. It’s not only tomato growers and processors who suffer. Retailers rely on the gorgeous tomato to make the rest of the produce section look more appealing. It’s the ‘halo’ effect, says Jim Hertel, managing partner at retail consulting firm Willard Bishop LLC. And for restaurants, the timing couldn’t be worse. Rising ingredient costs are pushing Americans back into the kitchen. Here’s another excuse to to cook more meals at home

According to today’s Wall Street Journal, at least one growers association is calling for a Congressional investigation of the Food and Drug Administration, who has been charged with finding the source of this expensive problem. 1,700 samples collected by the FDA have come back negative for salmonella Saintpaul, the rare strain making people sick.

Where Do Tomatoes Come From?

The mystery, and the resulting economic hardship, stems from the sprawling nature of the U.S. food chain, especially the system of distributing fresh produce… Because tomatoes are perishable, suppliers typically rely on more than one grower to fill orders. Once the tomatoes come into a processing facility, they’re usually sorted based on ripeness, size and grade, not origin. 

This is why inspectors have been unable to determine where in the world (literally) salmonella tainted the tomatoes. It could have been anywhere from a field in Florida, a packaging plant in Mexico, or a processor in California. 

So the more hands that touch my food the greater the chances I’ll get sick? Maybe not. Not only do regulators not really know where the yuck is coming from, scientists don’t exactly know how it’s getting onto, or into, our tomatoes.

Some experiments show bacteria can enter tomatoes submerged in cold water. Others suggest salmonella-contaminated water can enter through the stem or flower of a tomato plant.

So maybe it really is time to grow your own.

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The Tomato Industry In Trouble

To protect themselves, tomato growers in California and Florida are pushing for new self-imposed regulation including annual inspections and increased training for contaminant prevention. But that may not be enough. According to a 2004 report, the tomato industry has been in trouble for a while. The chairman of the California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA) stated,

“While prices for both tomato paste and raw tomatoes could rise in 2004, the basic structural issues plaguing the domestic processing industry since 1999 have not changed.”

He went on to detail the problems:

  • Excess total bulk paste production capacity that exceeds its ability to market products.
  • The transition from fresh pack canning to two-stage bulk paste re-manufacturing has reached it practical maximum.
  • Paste re-manufacturers are getting more product from a pound of raw product, so much more that that alone drives modest increases in consumption.
  • Two key processing tomato markets, the pizza and pasta industries, are not growing, primarily because of America’s infatuation with the low carb Atkins diet.
  • Export markets are small, and competition from China will not allow that to change.

Cameron believed at that time that rowers would will move to higher profit, lower risk crops like cotton, rice and wheat.

On June 10 of this year, the same day the media went nuts over salmonella tomatoes, the CTGA reported increasing concerns:

  • Between diesel and fertilizer, costs are up approximately $200/acre since January 1
  • Some growers will be looking to their processor to find ways to soften this financial hit or this will be the last year that they’ll grow tomatoes

Who loves the salmonella scare? Maybe the people who grow those itty bitty cute cherry and grape varieties, and tomatoes sold still on the vine. You know, those very expensive ones?

And my kids. They hate tomatoes.