Tomato growers in Manatee County, Fla., drew a collective sigh of relief Tuesday after learning their crop has been deemed safe to eat.
Tomatoes from Ruskin, Palmetto and Quincy were cleared after the Food and Drug Administration compared the time of the outbreak of salmonella with the area's harvest, said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.
"What we've been saying to FDA is that these areas weren't even harvested. You've got to free them up and they finally did," she said.
Since mid-April, 167 people have been infected with Salmonella Saintpaul in 17 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. At least 23 people have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The FDA has not completely ruled out other parts of Florida as the cause of the outbreak. But since the tomatoes have already been eaten and no reports of illness have occurred in Florida or the Eastern states where tomatoes are shipped, Compton is confident Florida fruit is not the source of the problem.
"Florida has got one of the safest tomato production initiatives in the nation," she said. "We encourage Floridians to get out there and buy these fresh tomatoes. They're good and they're safe."
For some of Tuesday, Florida was a state of confusion for tomato growers.
Before 6 p.m., Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto only knew that the Quincy area of north Florida was clear to sell tomatoes. Spencer had been monitoring a phone conference with the FDA and he wasn't sure all of Florida would get the green light to sell produce.
"The Quincy and the north Florida area normally harvests starting June 1 and, if you remember, this outbreak in Texas started at the end of April, so, obviously, it couldn't be from north Florida," Spencer said. "We have some crops up there so, at least, north Florida gets us partly clear."
Then, just before 6 p.m, Spencer got the good news that Palmetto was also clear.
"We are cleared," a relieved Spencer said. "I'm excited. We're going back to work."
Spencer said something has to be done to get to the bottom of these incidents more quickly.
"The FDA is going to have to speed up the process," Spencer said. "You have guilt by association. If the offending tomatoes are from Mexico and you cost American growers hundreds of millions of dollars, you've got to fix the system."
Had the incident occurred three weeks ago at the height of harvesting time, the impact would have crippled some area growers.
As of Tuesday, 2 million pounds of tomatoes sat in boxes stacked in Palmetto's West Coast Tomato packing house waiting to be shipped and 6 million pounds were left in the fields unpicked.
"We expect to deal with problems — hurricanes, hail, dust and disease," Spencer said. "We can't deal with consumers who've stopped buying our product overnight."
Raymond Lee, executive director of the Manatee County Farm Bureau, said during his time working with the agriculture industry since the 1950s, he's not seen the tomato industry suffer to this extent.
"It's just startling they would close down the tomato business in Florida," Lee said.
Edward Angrisani, a partner of Taylor & Fulton, said he's been on the phone with customers about shipping the tomatoes.
"There's no doubt that there is a negative financial impact. We just don't know how much," he said. "We're back in business. We're going to continue our harvest."
The Florida tomato industry had $464 million in cash receipts in 2006-2007, according to the state of Florida.