Repairing the Tomato's Rotten Image

This week, the Food and Drug Administration deemed tomatoes safe again after some varieties were implicated in the recent salmonella scare--an outbreak that has been described by the Centers for Disease Control as the worst in 10 years.

But as relieved as tomato growers are to see the FDA search for the source of the contamination move to jalapenos, Serrano, peppers and cilantro, which are still on the warning list, the agency's announcement won't immediately undo the damage to the industry from weeks of unnerving headlines about illness caused by contaminated produce (1,220 confirmed cases in 42 states since April). The FDA identified tomatoes as a potential salmonella source in June and warned against the consumption of certain raw varieties. By June 28, the sale of tomatoes was down 17 percent nationally, according to the Perishables Group, an independent consulting firm.

While the total losses to tomato growers, packers, and distributors are still being calculated, the cost is expected to be well over $100 million. And if previous outbreaks are any guide, it may take a while before the news that tomatoes are OK really sinks into the public consciousness after a barrage of confusing warnings about which varieties of which types vegetables were suspect. Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange says that one of the scariest things for him, has been the surveys indicating that 8 percent of shoppers say they would never buy tomatoes again. NEWSWEEK's Amadea Britton asked Brown how his organization coped with this industry crisis, and their plans to get back on track--and back onto America's plates. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What does it feel like to finally be cleared by the FDA?
Reggie Brown: Well it kind of feels like you've been whipped pretty hard, but it's kind of nice to stop getting whipped.

What was the low point of this experience for you?
I think it was that call on a Saturday night as I was having dinner with my family and walked out of the restaurant and answered the voice mail and discovered that the FDA wanted to have a discussion with the industry and that they had concerns about tomatoes and salmonella. 

Are you feeling upbeat now--is this a happy day?
I think the description would be relieved but not necessarily upbeat. At least we've got a positive diagnosis that we can move forward and try to fix the public image that's been grossly tarnished.

Speaking of public image, how tough has it been to handle public relations?
The scary thing about it is the amount of media coverage that this outbreak has received and the longevity with which it has been ongoing. Some initial consumer surveys have been done in the produce industry and are very, very scary. In a consumer poll, conducted from the 13th to the 19th of June by the Produce Marketing Association, of those consumers being surveyed, 8 percent of the shoppers said they would never buy tomatoes again.

What are your plans for damage control now that tomatoes have been cleared?
We're scrambling as we speak to try to organize resources to be able to go out in public campaigns.

Did you ever feel that you were being wrongly accused, like you were on trial, but you knew you were innocent?
It's a very complicated process, and we have some respect for FDA and CDC and the challenges that they face, but you know we've never had more than two individuals in Florida that even had salmonella and it kind of defies logic in a state with a population of 14 million that if the tomatoes were a problem here that we wouldn't have had a greater problem locally. But anytime anybody's got a problem with tomatoes, everybody in the tomato business has a problem.

Has this ordeal affected your plans for next growing season at all?
I've had a number of extremely nervous phone calls from growers and shippers that were very concerned about the risk that we were taking on at that point [before being removed from the FDA warning list]. We had no idea whether we'd have a green light to sell or whether we'd still be under the cloud. We're very much relieved not to be under the cloud anymore.

Can you give me some sense of what kinds of losses the industry has suffered?
I've got companies that have indicated lost sales and lost income due to crop potentially not even being harvested that range anywhere from roughly half a million dollars to upward of $9 million dollars for individual companies. And this is only on the farm end of the equation. There's an entire community out there in the tomato industry. We have a repacking and distribution system that was injured in this process. We've got retailers that lost sales. We've got restaurants that took tomatoes off the menu and potentially lost sales.

Would you say that the worst is now over?
It's almost like having a hangover. It's something that's going to stay with us for a little while, but we're going to be doing everything we can as an industry to reinstitute in the public mind that tomatoes are in fact one of the safest and most wholesome vegetables out there in their diet and that America loves tomatoes. We're going to be doing everything we can to renew that love relationship.