Tomato growers push for compensation for FDA warning

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

Two separate congressional hearings will enable California and Florida growers to bash the FDA for supposedly blowing a recent salmonella outbreak. Regulators initially raised warning flags about tomatoes, costing farmers a bundle before suspicions turned to jalapeno peppers. On Friday, the FDA narrowed its focus to Mexico-grown jalapenos, clearing the U.S. crop.

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

Cardoza chairs 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 California's Central Valley to delve into the problem.

Finger-pointing, though, may be easier than finding viable fixes.

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 pegs those losses at $100 million.

Few doubt the FDA's warnings hurt business. California tomato exports to Canada have dropped by one-third, and retail tomato sales between San Diego and 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," declared Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla., adding that "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 new 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.

To date, more than 1,250 people in 43 states have been stricken with this latest outbreak. At least 229 have been hospitalized, and two have died.

On June 7, the FDA issued a nationwide warning against eating several types of raw tomatoes. On July 17, the agency removed that tomato warning and declared instead that raw jalapeno and raw Serrano peppers "may be linked" to salmonella. On Monday, regulators announced 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 ... jalapeno and Serrano peppers have become more clearly implicated."

Ed Beckman of California Tomato Farmers said the California and Florida tomato industries would benefit if strict standards already applied in the two states would be extended nationwide. The FDA, though, says it first needs authorization from Congress to impose certain nationwide mandates. This could take a long time, of which lawmakers in this election year already have a shortage.

Cardoza's subcommittee will conduct its hearing Wednesday morning, focusing on the challenges in tracing back sources of food contamination. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee will conduct its separate hearing Thursday on lessons learned from the salmonella outbreak.

The latter committee has been conducting hearings into food safety since January 2007. Illustrating the political difficulties involved, a draft food safety overhaul bill was published last April, but a formal bill has not been introduced.