Some produce truckers shy away from tomatoes

| 6/12/2008

As officials attempt to sort out how Salmonella ended up in fresh tomatoes, OOIDA member and produce hauler Gayland Monday said he made the decision more than a week ago to play it safe – no tomatoes of any kind on his five trucks – for now.

Monday, who lives in Queen City, TX, said he’s not taking any chances hauling potentially contaminated tomatoes until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pinpoints the source of the contaminated produce.

He learned that tactic the hard way.

Almost two years ago, when an outbreak linked to E.coli in bagged spinach was announced, he had pallets of the potentially contaminated product on his trailer. The spinach was refused at the warehouse when he tried to unload, and he was left holding the bag.

Monday said he lost a day’s wages just trying to figure out what to do with the rejected spinach. Then he had to offload the pallets and pay someone to dump the bagged spinach at a landfill. He also had to pay the landfill, but he wasn’t reimbursed by the shipper for his costs.

“I am just not going to haul tomatoes until this is all cleared up. I am just not going to do it after what I went through the last time with the whole spinach mess,” he said. “I don’t want to take a chance and maybe have these tomatoes on my trucks and then have them rejected when I try to deliver them.”

The illness has been identified in 18 states now, according to the FDA’s Web site. This particular strain of Salmonella Saintpaul, which has sickened at least 167 people and hospitalized 23 people, is linked to eating raw Roma, plum or red round tomatoes.

In addition truckers not hauling these tomatoes, many fast food chains are not serving sliced tomatoes on their sandwiches. Some stores have pulled the tomatoes in question from their shelves until further notice.

Texas, where Monday lives, has the highest number of reported illnesses – 56 reported cases – linked to this Salmonella outbreak.

“Nobody I know is hauling tomatoes because of this Salmonella outbreak,” he said. “I think they are like me on this; they are not willing to take that financial risk right now.”

Leaders of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association have been critical of the FDA and have been weighing in on the food safety issue for almost two years now.

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz testified at an FDA hearing on produce truckers’ issues in April of 2007. However, he said, the agency has yet to include truckers in any meaningful discussions on food safety issues, even through food is usually in transit when a recall is issued.

The OOIDA has been critical of the FDA’s Food Protection Plan since the Government Accountability Office issued a report citing problems with the plan late last year. The House Energy and Commerce’s oversight and investigations subcommittee met on Thursday, June 12, to voice their concerns with the FDA’s food safety plan, as well.

“We have been critical of the FDA and their handling of food safety issues for almost two years now – and still these outbreaks keep occurring, and the agency is still not doing what it needs to be doing,” he said. “It seems the FDA would rather cater to the produce industry and continue to pay with people’s lives than take a stand and develop meaningful oversight of the food industry.”

While the FDA has spent crucial time ruling out which states or areas they are not looking at as being associated with the current outbreak, the agency has been hesitant to say which regions they are indeed focusing on.

While recent news reports continue to point to Mexico as a likely source of the tomatoes, the FDA has not made an official announcement yet.

William Nganje, associate professor at the Morison School of Management and Agribusiness at Arizona State University, said the FDA is using extreme caution before announcing the potential source because of “liability issues.”

“It’s a very sensitive issue because until the FDA comes down with a final say that it’s from Mexico, we don’t want to link it to the country because it can cause a huge economic loss and they cut off all supplies from that origin,” Nganje said. “That’s one of the challenges that we face when we get a food outbreak or major food recall is the amount of time it takes to really pinpoint it down to the source.”

In February, Nganje, along with four other ASU faculty members, received a grant to study all aspects of the food supply chain on imported produce coming across the border between Arizona and Nogales, Mexico, which is one of the busiest ports at the Southwest border.

He said this latest outbreak in tomatoes is another example of the need for a universal traceback system to track produce through the supply chain.

“This latest outbreak is really big, so this contamination is coming for a significant source, like water, but we really don’t know because there is no traceback system in place,” Nganje said. “This is one of the problems we have in the fresh produce industry, that there are no mandatory guidelines like there are for beef and poultry. Everything is voluntary – recommended – but not mandatory.”

Cost is a major reason some of the growers are hesitant to implement a traceback system, but Nganje said this latest outbreak has crippled the entire tomato industry, even in regions where the tomatoes have been cleared, because the source has not been identified.

“Policy is going to drive food safety in terms of fixing the problems in the produce industry. Whether that policy is voluntary or mandatory, we just don’t know yet,” he said. “But, while people keep debating the costs, just look at what this is costing tomato growers everywhere: millions and millions of dollars. Instead, if traceback programs existed for everyone, they wouldn’t have to do a trial-and-error elimination process to say which ones aren’t involved, instead of going straight to the source and identifying the problem.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer