What Salmonella Scare Means For Farmers

A recent outbreak in salmonella linked to raw tomatoes has farmers across the country worried. Tom Deardorff, a fourth generation farmer in Oxnard, Calif., is scared that decreased demand will leave his tomatoes to rot in the field.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

Tomatoes grown in at least 20 states have been given a clean bill of health. That's to say they are not associated with the Salmonella outbreak, which has made more than 150 people sick. But even though tomatoes from top-producing states like California and Florida are considered safe, many consumers are feeling a bit squeamish about buying any. Tom Deardorff is a fourth-generation tomato farmer in Oxnard, California, and he's on the line with us now. Welcome to the program and tell us, how big of a year is this for you - for your crops?

Mr. TOM DEARDORFF (Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard California): Well, we are setting up to have a very positive year based on what's happened over the last couple of years. Starting production in about two weeks and hoping for the best.

COHEN: Hoping for the best, but expecting what? How is the Salmonella outbreak going to affect you, do you think?

Mr. DEARDORFF: Well, it's obviously substantially changed the marketplace in a very short period of time. What looked like was going to be a very positive season could end up being a disaster if certain buyers in both retail and food-service industry continue to not offer them on their menu items.

COHEN: And I have to say, you know, tomatoes don't necessarily have a great track record. There have been more than a dozen outbreaks of contamination with tomatoes since 1990. So how do you, as a farmer, go about convincing people it's OK to eat this stuff?

Mr. DEARDORFF: Well, they actually have a very good track record in California and from a food-safety standpoint, we are the leading producers of the safest, best supply of tomatoes. So, it's a matter of educating the consuming public about where their tomatoes are coming from and about the measures that have been implemented in the last 10 to 15 years to help increase the food-safety elements of our products.

COHEN: Even though tomatoes here in California are considered safe, I'm wondering if you've taken any additional safety precautions with your crops.

Mr. DEARDORFF: Yeah. Food safety is obviously an evolving thing, and we continue to implement new measures every year. This year, for example, we've substantially altered a lot of our packing shed in pursuit of better food- safety measures and more wash stations and more critical control-point analysis of the product as it moves through our packing shed.

COHEN: You know, I hear you talking about this, and I trust what you're saying is right. But I've got to say, you are not with me at the store when I look at the tomatoes, and I have to say, I've looked at them in the past couple of days and thought, I don't know. It feels just a little bit weird. So how do you go about convincing people when you can't be there for every, you know, individual potential buyer?

Mr. DEARDORFF: And consumer confidence is a very finicky thing and we've seen with prior problems with food-safety issues, it's usually an initial huge reaction, and then it takes six to nine to sometimes 12 months to regain that consumer confidence. We are hoping that this time, because the domestic food supply has been cleared and has been recognized as not being a part of any of these warnings, that hopefully that recovery time is much quicker. We're going to need a lot of help from the government to help us get that message out. We are going to need a lot of help from our industry marketing associations. And then as individual companies, we need to get out there and educate the public about all the food-safety measures that we do here in our domestic food supply to ensure the safety of our products.

COHEN: Worse-case scenario, how much might you lose?

Mr. DEARDORFF: Well, worst case is a really bad picture. California is the leading producer of tomatoes and if we have to start disking under fields, the ramifications are going to be into the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. So, it could be a very huge scenario if we can't regain consumer confidence here real quickly.

COHEN: California tomatoes have been cleared, but when you see them in the store, you don't necessarily know that they are from California and therefore, OK. So how do you get that message out?

Mr. DEARDORFF: Well, interestingly, as of the end of September 2008, as a result of the current farm bill, we will have mandatory country-of-origin labeling at the retail level. So, retailers will be signing fresh fruits and vegetables here real soon so that the consuming public does know where their fresh fruit and vegetables are coming from.

COHEN: Tom Deardorff of Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, California. Thank you and good luck.

Mr. DEARDORFF: Thank you very much.

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