Food Scares Pack Financial Punch When the Food and Drug Administration issues an advisory about contaminated food, consumers listen — like with the salmonella scare that was blamed on tomatoes. When the problem is solved or the culprit turns out to be something else, it can take months or years for consumers to trust that food again.
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Food Scares Pack Financial Punch

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Food Scares Pack Financial Punch

Food Scares Pack Financial Punch

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Deborah Amos. What happens when a familiar food becomes a food scare? Most grocery stores have pulled Mexican-grown jalapenos off their shelves. The Food and Drug Administration says those peppers are the likely source of a three month salmonella outbreak. But before jalapenos, tomatoes were in trouble. Ben Adler of member station KXJZ says it's not always easy for an industry to bounce back.

BEN ADLER: Before jalapenos started spicing up the headlines - and not the way the industry would like - the FDA first thought the culprit was tomatoes. Then a couple of weeks ago they said, you know what, never mind. This was reported NPR.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Go ahead, eat that tomato. Today the Food and Drug Administration said it is OK to consume all types of fresh tomatoes after salmonella scare.

ADLER: Whether the FDA is on the right track or not, it's clear their warnings carry a financial punch. Just ask Dean Jansen, who grows, packs and ships thousands of acres of tomatoes near Stockton, California. He's lost around two and a half million dollars.

Mr. DEAN JANSEN (Tomato Grower): And the scare hurt everything. Even though they said that grape tomatoes and cherry tomatoes were not part of the problem, it still affected the total tomato market.

ADLER: We're standing on the edge of a field that's harvesting today. It's near a freeway and a small airport. Farm workers are picking bright green tomatoes straight off the vine and tossing them in buckets. By early next week, they'll have turned red and they'll be in stores, but not as many tomatoes as before.

Mr. JANSEN: Retail is still lagging. The consumer still doesn't quite have the confidence yet that they should.

ADLER: And that might not change anytime soon. Remember this back in September 2006?

Unidentified Man #1: Fifteen more people around the country have fallen ill and ten more were hospitalized Wednesday as the E. coli outbreak in spinach enters its second week.

ADLER: That was NPR member station KAZU, which covers California's Salinas Valley, known as the salad bowl of America. In the end, the FDA traced the tainted spinach back to a field near but outside the Salinas Valley. But even now, almost two years later, the spinach industry is still hurting.

Mr. SCOTT HORSFALL (California Department of Food and Agriculture): If you wanted me to put a number on it, we're like 10 percent off of where we were prior to the outbreak.

ADLER: Scott Horsfall runs the California leafy greens industry's food safety and marketing efforts through a branch of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Mr. HORSFALL: We have a tough row to hoe in terms of regaining consumer confidence. I think there was obviously a lot of publicity about the problem, and so it takes a while to convince consumers that the product is safe.

ADLER: And it has taken a while. In 2006, the valley with spinach crops around the Salinas Valley plummeted 40 percent compared to the year before. In 2007, they bounced back just slightly. Horsfall says one reason for the slow recovery is how easy it is to replace spinach on the dinner table.

Mr. HORSFALL: We've seen in some cases where a menu item at a restaurant might've been taken off in the aftermath of the outbreak, and then it takes a while to get it back on the menu. And having it on the menu is what drives sales levels.

ADLER: So what about tomatoes? They're a lot harder to replace than spinach. Dean Jansen says restaurants and fast food chains are now buying tomatoes at about the same rate as before. So the question is: how long will it take consumers to forgive and forget?

Mr. JANSEN: The market right now is a little bit better. So if we can continue to have a decent market the rest of the year and if the consumer confidence comes back to where it should be as far as tomatoes go, I think we'll come out of it all right.

ADLER: But not without the industry first losing an estimated $250 million from the scare, even though the FDA now believes it's blameless.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

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