Florida Agricultural Commissioner Urges Precise Tomato IDs

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said Thursday he is "99.99 percent" sure that a national salmonella outbreak was not caused by Florida-grown tomatoes, but that more definitive identification of produce origin would help investigators track down where the infection came from.

Bronson traveled Thursday to Washington to meet with David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods, to discuss the labeling issue and others related to the outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, which began in April.

The meeting included two Florida congressmen: Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, and Allen Boyd, D-Panama City.

Florida tomatoes from four counties, as well as tomatoes from parts of Mexico, have yet to be cleared in the outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says there have been 707 cases of the salmonella in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Only one Florida resident - an unidentified man from the southwest part of the state - has been affected, and he ate a raw tomato in New York, the CDC said.

"We know the confusion they are going through," Bronson said of the FDA investigation. "The fact that you have repacking going on across the country with Florida tomatoes puts our label on some product that is not 100 percent Florida product."

Bronson said he recommended to the FDA and the congressmen that repacked tomatoes be better identified.

For example, Bronson said, it's possible that contaminated tomatoes could originate in Mexico, be taken across the border in Arizona and then be repacked in Florida. Or a certain size or color of tomato could be in a box filled by produce from different countries, he said.

Further, a U.S.-based packing company could have its label on a box of tomatoes from Mexico, Bronson said.

FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said Thursday she could not comment on the salmonella investigation.

"We are in both Florida and Mexico investigating growing areas and farms," Kwisnek said.

Boyd said it's imperative that faster trace-backs be developed, particularly for a perishable product such as tomatoes.

"What we were trying to impress upon the FDA is to work with due haste in terms of getting this problem solved, develop some protocol and standards that will allow them to track back, and get it done in a hurry," Boyd said. "Otherwise, you lose a whole crop, and it might be a good crop."

Bronson said that before a national Country of Origin Labeling Law, known as COOL, takes effect Oct. 1, the FDA needs to make sure it's possible to quickly and easily identify where a product comes from.

"Remixing has been going on for a long time," Bronson said. "But when you do have an infection or problem, that is when it gets bad."