Compensation sought for tomato growers devastated by salmonella scare

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 23, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- In 25 years of growing tomatoes, Greg Murray's Bainbridge farm weathered floods, hailstorms, freezes, droughts, poor yields, poor markets, diseases and insect infestations.

However, Murray's toughest challenge came this summer not from nature but from a federal agency-driven and media-hyped public hysteria over salmonella-infected produce.

Murray termed summer's recall the "false food safety awareness fiasco" during last week's congressional hearing on the impact of the salmonella outbreak on tomato farmers.

"The one thing we have never had to face was a public hysteria attack caused by the media and agencies of the federal government," Murray testified. "No amount of planning could have prepared us for what we faced this June as we started harvesting our spring crop of tomatoes."

On June 7, the Food and Drug Administration alerted consumers that red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes may have caused a salmonella Saintpaul strain outbreak that sickened 1,300 U.S. residents and led to 252 hospitalizations and two deaths.

The agency lifted its warning July 17, and investigators subsequently have traced the salmonella to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown on two Mexican ranches.

According to a study by the University of Georgia, the scare led to a $25.7 million loss to the state's economy. Lawmakers, including Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., have joined farmers in criticizing how the FDA handled the outbreak.

Last week, Bishop asked House leadership to consider providing $100 million to cover crop losses resulting from what many believe was the FDA's mishandling of the salmonella outbreak. This summer, eight Florida lawmakers introduced a different bill asking Congress to authorize $100 million in compensation for growers and others who lost business as a result of the FDA's consumer warnings.

"We cannot have another summer like the past one," Bishop said. "As long as this country produces a domestic supply of food and fiber, we will have incidences of contamination every now and then. But we cannot and must not allow those relatively rare situations to affect entire unrelated industries ever again."

A boost from the vets

Vets for Freedom, a veterans group that supports the Iraq war, took to the Hill on Wednesday to express its support for a soon-to-be-announced House resolution stating that the surge in Iraq was successful and attributing that success to military strategy and the troops. The measure is backed by Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, who netted the group's endorsement earlier this summer and who is in a tight race against retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard.

"We are ... honored to stand with Rep. Jim Marshall, who has set an example for every veteran seeking higher office," Vets for Freedom chairman Pete Hegseth said Wednesday. "He has put victory before his party affiliation, demonstrating what true statesmanship looks like."

Gas gang or bust?

The English poet William Butler Yeats once wrote: "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold." The line aptly applies to the beleaguered congressional "Gas Gang's" bipartisan efforts to craft energy legislation.

Republican members of the group, which is headed, in part, by Sen. Saxby Chambliss and includes Sen. Johnny Isakson, has faced criticism from some fellow party members, conservative groups and talk show hosts for ceding a potential political sledgehammer to the Democrats. Within its ranks, the gang has hotly debated increasing drilling provisions and the proposal's cost --currently $84 billion, which is offset by doing away with tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.

The Oct. 1 expiration of a moratorium on new offshore drilling adds to the tension. Some in Congress want to let the ban lapse, others want it extended.

Debate on drilling and the myriad energy proposals floating around the Hill will likely dominate Congress' final week before adjourning for recess.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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